We all have our own celebrity crush. For me, the longest-standing such honor goes to actress and musician Alicia Witt.
Over a career that began as a child in the sci-fit epic “Dune,” Witt has become known for starring in films such as “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “Urban Legend,” and any number of Hallmark TV tearjerkers. However, I first came to know and appreciate her charms as Zoey Woodbine, the acerbic teenage daughter on the 1990s CBS sitcom “Cybill.” A pretty redhead who never quite fit in — and didn’t want to — Zoey was always the smartest person in the room, both in terms of book-learning and clever retorts, and also had an affection for playing the piano, a talent utilized because of Witt’s own status as a child musical prodigy. Whenever she was upset, Zoey would go bang out some angry, passionate piece of classical music on the keyboard.
Flashback Theater Co. has introduced us to the Austenian equivalent of Zoey Woodbine in Mary Bennet, the lead character in “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly.” Because the above description fits this particular take on the classic literary character as well as it does Witt’s breakout television role.
“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly” is the holiday offering from Somerset’s own semi-professional theater company, and is now in its second weekend with three more shows to go — tonight, tomorrow, and a Sunday matinee. Following is a review of the play to give audiences an idea of what to expect. It’s not a true review, of course — full disclosure, I’m too connected to the company and players to ever give a truly impartial review, and don’t like the idea of denigrating any artistic endeavor in our community. However, I can give my impressions on what I saw during the first weekend’s run, and encourage the audience to support the arts right here in Pulaski County.
“Christmas at Pemberly” is a sort of spin-off of Jane Austen’s iconic novel “Pride and Prejudice.” That book was primarily about the “will-they-or-won’t-they?” love story between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, as any Austen fan well knows, but in this original work by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, those key players take a backseat to another blossoming romance — that between bookish Bennet sister Mary and a new character, Arthur de Bourgh.
Most of the familiar notes of what makes a Jane Austen story are present in the play, and there are sly winks throughout for the 19th century British author’s devotees, which are legion. However, for those concerned about the sometimes tedious pace of an Austen work, you’ll find “Pemberly” neatly boiled down into a very digestible, fast-paced stage play over just around a couple of hours with an act break.
Jade Ellis is a familiar face to local audiences as an actor, having worked numerous times before with both Flashback and Somerset Community College’s theater program. Here, she’s making her debut as a director for the Somerset set, and the result is impressive. Simply putting it all together and getting in on stage is challenge enough; had she done nothing other than that, I would have been proud of her. But the lifeblood of this play is comic rhythm, and Ellis finely-tuned that timing into a well-oiled machine. Line deliveries are pitch-perfect and right on schedule, the facial expressions given by the actors to non-verbally communicate feelings are varied and hilarious, and all the action moves smoothly around the intimate “black box” staging area to keep things lively and progressing. Ellis makes clothes by trade, unique “wearable art,” but it seems she just as adept at sewing together a genuinely funny show.
Of course, the cast does all the heavy lifting here, and the star is young Alex George. Still not even in college, yet someone who carries herself as if a much more mature actress, we’ve seen George grow up before our eyes on the local stage, starting with 2015’s “And the Tide Shall Cover the Earth,” and become completely comfortable in her own skin as a performer. It is seemingly effortless for her now to pull off a role such as Mary, the intellectual out of her family’s five sisters who would rather study maps of faraway lands than flirt with potential suitors. It takes a chance encounter with a similarly academic-minded gentleman to bring out another side of Mary, flustered and lovesick, but George’s spectrum as an actor is wide, and she slides between all of Mary’s varying emotions in this confusing time so smoothly, it’s a marvel to behold. The sky is the limit for George’s potential in her craft.
Brian Covert first acted in “Little Shop of Horrors” earlier this year, and exhibited a knack for broad comedy. Here, as Arthur, he has clearly grown much as an actor. His movements and inflections as a nervous fellow uncomfortable around women but enchanted by Mary are subtle and feel completely natural. There are times when you can tell someone is “acting” what they’re feeling, and other times that it feels so easy, you forget you’re watching a play and are convinced it’s real. Covert achieved that in bringing this new addition to the Austen extended canon to life.
On the other hand, Mr. Darcy, one of the most iconic male characters in all of modern literature, takes a backseat in this play. Charles Bingley is nearly as recognizable to readers. But this is a play written by and marketed to a female sensibility — it’s about Jane Austen characters, let’s not kid ourselves here — and it’s all about the ladies. Thus, rather than take lead roles, Darcy and Bingley are transformed into a sort of comic relief duo, in the grand literary tradition of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or C-3PO and R2-D2. And in this niche, they actually play off of each other quite nicely. Brian Simmons is Darcy, and Bradley Shane Gilmore is Bingley, both newcomers to the Flashback stage, and they seem to genuinely get along as the men so exasperated by the “women’s talk” around them, eager to sneak away and have a drink, or share manly advice when needed. They have different dynamics: Simmons’ Darcy is loud and boisterous and has personality springing from every pore, while Gilmore’s Bingley is more reserved and charmingly befuddled — his idea on how to woo a woman? Just say stuff about her eyes. As such, the pairing is a nice complement to each other and to the rest of the show’s goings-on, and provides plenty of out-loud laughs.
However, like Darcy, the imposing literary figure of Elizabeth Bennet — now Elizabeth Darcy — is also more of a supporting character, and like her husband, is primarily paired with another sister, the pregnant Jane. Both are now tasked with dispensing sage advice and fretting over their sisters’ happiness, though we do get to see some of that old Lizzy Bennet willfulness in her mission to put a Christmas tree up at the Pemberly estate — an “old German custom” that hasn’t quite caught on yet and draws both confusion and ire from others upon seeing that someone has set up a giant plant inside the well-kept home, a bit that’s good for plenty of chuckles. Flashback mainstay Amber Frangos delivers as Elizabeth in the wiser big sister role, and Krissy Brant, last seen on the local stage as “Rosie the Riveter,” plays Jane — and, frankly, is capable of doing more than the script demands of her.
Supporting characters who shine include Bailey Patterson’s Lydia Wickham, the youngest Bennet sister, who is a natural flirt with a questionable marriage, and Martha Pratt’s take on Anne de Bourgh, a minor “Pride and Prejudice” character given a dramatic makeover of sorts here. Patterson is just in high school but seems as comfortable in her role, or moreso, than any of the older actors. Her insecure brand of coquettishness feels natural and seamless, as noted about Covert’s performance earlier — and she creates some wonderful dramatic tension with sister Mary that plays authentically sisterly.
Anne, meanwhile, is the true “villain” of the piece, if there is such a thing, but I read her as more sympathetic — perhaps more than was intended. While Arthur and Mary want to be together, Anne seeks to marry Arthur to hold on to her family estate that she’s always known. She’s lost her mother, and is at risk of losing her home, and yes, can be a little nasty, but with all she’s been through, can you blame her? She seeks something practical and logical in a marriage while normally sensible Mary is over here whimsically chattering about marrying for love — something Anne derides as a fantastic fiction, and while the notion of wedding-as-arrangement might feel off to the modern eye, Anne isn’t actually out of line here. Pratt is a confident actress with a real stage presence, a different take on Anne than that given in the original Austen book, and does a lot to communicate to the audience that Anne isn’t just this shrill caricature of a shrew, but there’s a real person with real pain there.
Christmas may be over, but chances are you’re still throwing away boxes and finishing the last of those gingerbread cookies, so the holiday is still at the front of our minds. It’s not too late to go to Flashback Theater Co. and celebrate the season in theatrical style with our dedicated and oh-so-talented local actors — indeed, there may be no better way to close out 2018 than taking a trip back to the 1800s.
“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly” is being staged at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, December 28, and Saturday, December 29, and at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, December 30, at Flashback Theater Co., located in the old city hall building at the intersection of College Street and East Mt. Vernon Street. Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 at the door for adults, and $12 in advance, $15 at the door for students. Tickets are For tickets and additional information, visit flashbacktheater.co.