By SHARON EBERSON
City Theatre is taking a seat at Pittsburgh’s traditional holiday table, adding a dash of Jane Austen-inspired romance to a menu where Dickensian fare and Christmas-themed comedic offerings are ever bountiful.
The South Side company turns to Lauren Gunderson, among America’s most-produced playwrights, and co-writer Margot Melcon for Miss Bennet’s Christmas at Pemberley, the first play in a trilogy about the further lives and loves of the Bennet sisters of Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.
According to notes for a Canadian production of the play, the writers came up with the idea first, because “all theater companies need good holiday shows,” and next, it provides a peek into “the complications of being part of a family made up of dynamic women.”
When Kyle Haden was first approached to direct Miss Bennet – his first time directing a full City Theatre production – he was a bit taken aback. An Austen-themed holiday seemed off-brand for the busy director and educator, whose works this year include Quantum Theatre’s The Devil Is a Lie. He also is an associate professor of acting of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama and the leader of ColLABo, which invites theater-makers to explore pre-production challenges, leading up to the rehearsal process.
City’s co-artistic director Clare Drobot, while working with Haden on another project, first broached the idea.
“I was kind of like, ‘Me? Really?’ Because I think the track record of the people that direct it is, it’s not my profile at all,” Haden said. “But I think [City Theatre is] very intentional about expanding the reach of the type of folks that direct this kind of show. And I really do have a long history with Austen, personally.”
When his parents moved recently, the Bethel Park native cleaned out belongings from high school and college, and found among them reminders of his connection to English literature that were “specifically these stories, and over the years, I have really consumed a lot of it.”
A period love story such as Miss Bennet, with all the complications of a holiday family gathering, has been a change of pace, to say the least.
The production cast and crew are infused with Haden’s Carnegie Mellon School of Drama connections, including three current students. The cast of eight will be making their collective City Theatre debut when the show opens November 25.
Austen’s adherence to Georgian Era manners and class awareness remain on full display in a story that centers on middle sister Mary Bennet (University of Pittsburgh and Young Playwrights Festival alum Gabrielle Kogut). Of the five Bennet sisters, Mary is depicted in Pride and Prejudice as a prig – an unattractive bookworm who is moralistic and aloof. It is noted that she plays the piano without showing much talent for it, and by all appearances, she is destined to remain at home with her parents.
As we get reacquainted with Mary at Pemberley, she is growing tired of her role as dutiful middle daughter. While at her sister Lizzie’s home for Christmas, an unexpected guest sparks Mary’s hopes for breaking free of her obligations and possibly, finding love.
Haden’s Carnegie Mellon connections abound among the cast and creative team. The diverse cast includes current seniors Sophia Macy (Elizabeth Darcy), Alex Sheffield (Lydia Wickham) and Leyla Davis (Anne de Bourgh). Alex Manalo, the Point Park grad who recently oversaw City’s Young Playwrights Festival, makes her City debut as Jane Bingley.
The men of Pemberley are James Counihan as Charles Bingley, Michael Patrick Trimm as Arthur de Bourgh and Hansel Tan as Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Costumes reflecting the times are by Hugh Hanson, partnering with the Carnegie Mellon design department, with scenic design by Anne Mundell.
“This is Hugh’s era. He knows it, he loves it. He’s building some stuff as well, so we’re able to sort of layer and create different looks in smart ways. … Anne Mundell’s so smart, and I just love working with her and just trying to figure out how to create the set and create the room.”
He added that dramaturg Lindsay Barr has contributed to the look of those “amazing houses” as well, as they transform the Main Stage into the Darcy’s grand Pemberley house, crowded with family, for Christmas.
The idea, said Haden, is a cozy home-for-the-holidays feeling.
Along those lines, “Lizzie has decided to invoke the German tradition of a Christmas tree, which would’ve been very new for that time in the early 19th century,” Haden said. “And everybody has a comment about the fact that she’s brought in this 8-foot tall tree. It’s obviously very, very familiar to us, but it won’t be to the characters, so there’s a lot of jokes at Lizzie’s expense.”
It has been a while since the South Side company mingled among the holiday offerings that permeate live performances this time of year. It was in 2002 that City premiered the Tracy Brigden-era commission Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge, a musical parody by Christopher Durang.
With Miss Bennet: A Christmas at Pemberley, the company has the possibility of following up with two more that cover other sisters in the clan: The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley and Georgiana and Kitty.
“One of the great things about the plays is that they all sort of interweave,” Haden said. “So not only are we using Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as canon, but also, we’re looking at the other plays, because the second play takes place simultaneously as the first play, and the third play happens right after the events of the second play. So we’re also using those sort of as canon as well.”
The director looks at the current production as “sort of building the Star Wars trilogy, by providing a foundation for other storytellers going forward.”
Like the Star Wars movies, it helps to know something of the ubiquitous Pride and Prejudice, the original novel, or the movies, or the miniseries, the likes of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the fan fiction … it’s hard to miss. These adaptations, including Kate Hamill’s boisterous, comedic stage adaptation, are rarely kind to Mary Bennet.
There are Easter eggs for those in the know, to be sure, but this is a love story that should leave Austenites and newcomers with a warm and cozy feeling. Haden said it would be just as apt on Valentine’s Day — a dual-holiday movie, like A Nightmare Before Christmas, a welcome change after some of the subjects he has tackled in other projects this year.
“To come do this play that’s about love and family at the holidays, it’s been a nice change,” said Haden, who is ready for a break after a very busy year. “It’s still universal themes, but to deal with things in a sort of different way, it’s just been really, really nice.”
TICKETS AND DETAILS
City Theatre’s production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is November 25-December 17, 2023, on the Main Stage, 1300 Bingham St., South Side. Tickets: visit https://citytheatrecompany.org/play/miss-bennet-christmas-at-pemberley/ or call 412-431-CITY.