Trustus Theatre can always be counted on to take Columbians on a dizzying ride through differing cultures and time periods during the Christmas holidays. From Armadillo Acres, the rural trailer park setting for The Great American Christmas Trailer Park Musical (2015 and 2016), to the snow-covered cobblestone streets of early Victorian-era London in A Christmas Carol (2013 and 2014), to the kitschy suburbia of A Christmas Miracle at the Richland Fashion Mall (2017), seasonal merriment with occasional undertones of postmodern satire and sly winks to the audience make for a festive break from the theater’s otherwise serious and socially aware programming.
This year, Jane Austen is added to the mix with Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, a decidedly unauthorized sequel to Austen’s acclaimed 1813 novel, Pride and Prejudice. Writing in the formal, corseted, mannered Regency era of patriarchal British society, Austen nevertheless created fiercely independent female protagonists, using gentle comedy and ironic observation to comment on the social structure of her time.
“Women today still deal with family expectations, trying to find their way in the world, and discovering love,” says the production’s director, Libby Hawkins, a recent graduate of the University of South Carolina’s theater MFA program. “Jane Austen, like Shakespeare, helps young women today look at struggles they have [by experiencing] a world just distant enough to give clarity, distance, and humor.”
Making a return are familiar leads from the Austen novel, including the former Elizabeth Bennet and her husband of two years now, Mr. Darcy, a hunky, brooding paragon of English nobility, whose palatial estate, Pemberley, provides the setting for a holiday gathering. Joining them are Darcy’s cousin Anne DeBourgh and her previously unseen brother Arthur, and Elizabeth’s sisters, the beautiful Jane, the dizzy Lydia and the bookish Mary. Mary, an underdeveloped supporting character in Austen’s original, becomes the unanticipated romantic lead in this homage from playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon.
Hawkins is no stranger to the world of Austen, having portrayed Mary Bennet previously, as well as Elinor Dashwood in a reimagined staging of Sense and Sensibility at USC in 2018. She cites that production’s director, Lindsay Rae Taylor, as a stylistic influence.
“She took what was a hilarious script and added a lot of heart to it, and that’s what I hope I’ve brought to Miss Bennet,” Hawkins offers, adding that she hopes her play pushes past the farcical, though it “doesn’t shy away from a good joke.”
“The cast and I have embraced every opportunity to play up the physical comedy.”
Hawkins was overjoyed to see Mary get her own story in Miss Bennet.
“[It’s] a play in which a young woman finds love and her place in the world, while staying with her wonderful family for the holidays,” Hawkins explains. “[Mary] has a soft spot in my heart because she was the first Bennet sister I played onstage, and I always thought there was so much more to her than what got between the covers of Pride and Prejudice. She is smart, and strong, and not afraid to go her own way. And in Miss Bennet, [both] her family and a gentleman [come to] discover and love these things about her.”
“It’s definitely not an accident that the play takes place at Christmas,” the director concedes. “It’s the time of year that we feel most hopeful and open to new experiences, but we also have to deal with our families. And families, no matter how much you love each other, come with baggage. The Bennets are no exception — they are all staying in the same house for the first time in a few years, and they have to learn to see each other for who they are now, not who they were when they were children.”
Gunderson is currently the most widely produced living playwright in America. In 2019 alone, two of her earlier works, I and You and The Revolutionists were both produced at USC. Hawkins says that she admires the author’s ability to commingle contemporary sensibilities with the customs of an earlier time period.
“This script has a beautiful balance of humor and heart, and I think we’ve captured that,” the director observes. “And what a joy it is to work with new characters, as well as the ones we already know and love. The playwrights were able to blend the new with the old in such a genius way, and the result is a play that makes you think about love and social expectations and hope, while also laughing until you cry.
“It is very faithful to Austen, but without being stuffy. It’s got all of the charm and none of the pretension.
What: Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
Where: Trustus Theatre, 520 Lady St.
When: Dec. 6-21
More: 803-254-9732, trustus.org