Story: In this sequel two years later to Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet sisters are gathering for the Christmas holidays in 1815 at the home of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy and his wife, Mrs. Elizabeth (Bennet) Darcy. Visiting are Mrs. Jane (Bennet) Bingley and her husband, Mr. Charles Bingley, as well as middle sister Mary Bennet of the five Bennet sisters and younger sister Mrs. Lydia (Bennet) Wickham. Sister Kitty and their parents will arrive Christmas Day.

Also in attendance is Mr. Darcy’s good friend, Lord Arthur de Bourgh. He’s come directly from college, which has been a comfort to him, a place both for study and solace. Like Mary, the painfully shy Arthur prefers the company of a good book to unpredictable people, although he’s a nice enough fellow. With his parents now deceased, Arthur finds himself the baron of his own estate.

Both Elizabeth and Jane are pleasantly surprised that Mary is a bit more sociable and agreeable than she had been in their formative years. For her part, the always serious Mary is positively impressed with Arthur’s scholarly pursuit of knowledge. They even have copies of the same obscure scientific reference source. What are the odds?

While Arthur gingerly makes his way to utter a line or two in Mary’s presence, he unwittingly becomes the object of pursuit of the flirtatious and apparently unhappily married Lydia. Add to that the unexpected arrival of Arthur’s imperious cousin, Miss Anne de Bourgh, with some startling news of her own, and this holiday could prove even more controversial than the presence of a seasonal “tree” in the stately Darcy drawing room.

Highlights: The Rep offers its patrons a handsome holiday treat with this presentation of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. It’s brightly packaged with the smart, stylish writing of playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon and the impeccable performances of an inspired cast under Jenn Thompson’s carefully crafted direction.

Other Info: Miss Bennet recently won Chicago’s Jeff Award for Best New Play, and it’s easy to see why. It features the crisp albeit flowery dialogue prevalent in Austen’s stories. One can assume that both Gunderson and Melcon are Austen aficionados by this loving update on the lives of the (mostly) vivacious Bennet sisters who fill the pages of Pride and Prejudice.

Thompson works here with a technical staff equally devoted to honoring the 19th century writer whose works are known for the full-bodied characters she created. Wilson Chin’s handsome set design displays the elegant drawing room in the splendid Darcy manor, with an anteroom at upper stage right where Mary regales the gathering with her skills at the pianoforte or sometimes simply to play in solitude.

It’s illuminated in refined fashion by lighting designer Philip Rosenberg, with an elegant sound design courtesy of Toby Jaguar Algya.

Costume designer David Toser dresses everyone in their finest holiday splendor, with the lads sporting proper gentleman’s attire and the ladies resplendent in their own patrician wardrobes. Dialect coach Joanna Battles furnishes them as well with the proper diction of the well-educated, 19th century English society.

Thompson’s effortless pacing belies the production’s two acts and two hours and 20 minutes, which disappear as quickly as Lydia’s attempts at intellectual conversation. Even if some of the situations are resolved a bit too easily, her performers are so ingratiating that an audience can overlook minor script problems, especially in the spirit of the season.

Miles Jackson charms and entertains in glorious fashion throughout as the bumbling but kind-hearted Arthur. His awkward albeit sincere efforts to converse with the intellectual and extremely practical Mary are enchanting and humorous in his highly polished performance, which is epitomized by his entrances and approaches to other characters, always filled with trepidation.

Justine Salata’s rendition of Mary is every bit as whimsical and offbeat, as she carefully depicts Mary’s clinically studious nature gradually allowing the possibility of her heart seeking the fulfillment which her mind already possesses. Her on-stage chemistry with Jackson is appealing and amusing.

Austen Danielle Bohmer fills the vacuous Lydia with sufficient flirtatiousness to be more troublesome than endearing, but also depicts Lydia’s own growth and self-awareness in the course of the comedy. Harveen Sandhu shows the self-confidence and steady presence in Elizabeth’s personality, while Kim Wong capably portrays Jane’s gentle and loving ways.

Rhett Guter and Peterson Townsend are entertaining as the men in the Bennet sisters’ lives, Darcy and Bingley respectively, who know the best course for marital happiness is to defer to their charming wives, offering what ‘manly’ counsel they can to the naive Arthur. As Anne de Bourgh, Victoria Frings comes on like Cruella de Vil before subtly revealing the fissures in Anne’s iron-clad nature, with assist from the playwrights in their quest for a happy ending.

Devotees of Austen doubtless will delight in this tasty confection so intricately prepared by Thompson, her cast and staff as well as playwrights Gunderson and Melcon. At least two Austen neophytes found it irresistible as well.

Play: Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

Company: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road

Dates: Through December 24

Tickets: $18.50-$89; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org

Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.

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