There’s a tree in the living room. Mr. Darcy is bemused and Elizabeth is laughing. And Mary, sitting by the piano, feeling out chords for the Moonlight sonata, is thinking, squarish needles with a blue tinge, and the cones hang downwards … It’s a spruce.
They’re standing in a large, firelit room on a winter evening, and life has unexpectedly come into it. Two years past the end of Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet family are gathering for the holidays, and Mary, the awkward, bookish middle sister, is about to take center stage for the first time in her life.
This December, Shakespeare & Company will celebrate Jane Austen’s birthday with a costumed staged reading of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, directed by producing associate Ariel Bock.
They have chosen a warm story in a carefree and beautiful setting, said David Joseph, who will appear as Mr. Darcy, as actors who have known each other for years gathered at the Bernstein Theatre to talk over the story.
In Austen’s novel, Mary may seem the least fleshed-out character, said Lydia Barnett-Mulligan, who plays her. Mary is not warm or charismatic, social or witty. She spends her time practicing piano and reading.
“She blossoms in time for this play,” Barnett-Mulligan said.
By this holiday, Mary has begun to ask larger questions and not simply repeat what she reads. Her ideas have grown as she sat in her parents’ house in their small village, alone.
Now she is not confining herself to sermons and extracts. She is reading Lamarck’s theories on how giraffes got their long necks. She is deep in biology and botany, maps of Australia and Brazil. And she is realizing that they are not enough.
Arthur DeBourgh can understand her quiet and curiosity. Ryan Winkles plays DeBourgh, a new character invented for the play, as a reserved young man who has been content with the libraries and lectures at Oxford. His aunt has just died and left him a massive and bewildering responsibility.
He has inherited her landed estate and an influence over all of the lives of the people who live there. It weighs him down, Winkles said. But he has also had opportunities most people have never had, and certainly no woman has had. Mary couldn’t go to university. She couldn’t leave home. She has had to create her own world.
And here she is surrounded by her family again, overshadowing and vividly alive. Jane and Bingley are expecting their first child. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are making their house a family gathering place, and Lydia, unhappily married at 15, is frightened and isolated and flailing for a life-preserver.
In their circle, Mary has a chance at Austen’s kind of love.
“It’s not just lustful or clever,” Barnett-Mulligan said. “It’s about finding your partner, an intellectual equal. It’s shown in this relationship — if you listen to the people around you, you realize, the things I’m hearing you say are the things in my heart. So often in a romantic comedy a relationship looks romantic on top. This feels deeper.”
‘It’s not enough to be happy in the moment. You have to find a person who will bring you out, challenge you, get you to grow. And there’s a lot of laughing.’ — Ariel Boch
“It’s not enough to be happy in the moment,” Boch agreed. “You have to find a person who will bring you out, challenge you, get you to grow. And there’s a lot of laughing.”
“So much of how she writes falling in love is tumultuous,” Winkles said. “It’s never easy.”
His wife shares Austen’s birthday on Dec. 16, and she has encouraged him to read many of Austen’s novels.
Like Austen’s heroes, Arthur experiences love as a quake at his foundations. It’s not we’re perfect for each other, Winkles said, but this is new and uncomfortable, unrecognizable, scary. Do I have to go away and study it for 10 years?
It feels real.
“I have always detested farce,” Joseph quoted Mary in the play. The playwrights could have compressed this comedy into a screwball round of misunderstandings, he said, but they have gone farther.
The lovers here are not perfect people with nothing standing between them but circumstances, like Jane and Bingley in the novel, divided by Mr. Darcy’s interference. They are complex, like Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy when they meet, facing fear and doubt to come close to each other.
And love comes in many forms. Jane and Bingley anticipate the change a new baby will bring. The Bennet sisters see Mary, like the spruce tree, with shock and pleasure, and the men who love them renew old friendships.
“I love the relationships between the three men,” Barnett-Mulligan said, “listening to them give each other guidance.”
“It’s real, too,” Joseph said. “I know that feeling. It’s complicated, and it can be messy.”
And no one has a map. The actors considered, as they thought of Mary and Arthur leaning over an atlas together.
“I take maps for granted,” Winkles said, “but I was at the Smithsonian in the National Archives, and the thing they’ve paid most for is a beautiful map, and it’s not that old — but it’s so wrong.”
For thousands of years, maps changed as cartographers learned more about the places they were trying to show. They weren’t static.
“They’re not just coordinates of a place,” Boch said, ‘but what it was like, what the person making the map saw and experienced.”
“They’re interpretive,” Joseph said.
Now satellite photographs make geography exact, but Barnett-Mulligan still finds Austen’s map a useful guide.
“Even though we can hop on a plane and explore somewhere, things like social media and the insane news cycle make me feel trapped,” she said, “and as though I don’t have a larger sense of things. It feels relevant now.”
“Getting your nose up out of the computer?” Bock asked.
“Looking beyond our little world,” she said.
“We’ll start traveling soon,” Winkles said, laughing and enjoying Arthur and Mary’s enthusiasm. “Let’s go to the Galapagos. We’ll name our dinghy the Beagle and punt down the Themes.”
This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle — my thanks to arts and entertainment editor Jeffrey Borak.