It is a truth to be universally acknowledged—as Jane Austen would say—that live theater is a great way to celebrate love, family, humanity and the holiday season. Eleanor Holdridge, who is directing the Austen-spinoff “Christmas at Pemberley” at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, would agree.
“I grew up going to every Arena show and saw a lot of theater that way,” said the Owings Mills native, now an associate professor at Catholic University of America and head of the directing department there. “The Jane Austen thing is in our DNA, in our culture. This idea of living in a world of manners, where it’s the humanity underneath that matters.”
Of course, “the Jane Austen thing” is much more than the six major novels about the lives and loves of the English gentry in the late 18th century written by Austen, who never married but found success as a published author and enjoys bona fide superstardom two centuries after her 1817 death.
While Austen’s masterpiece “Pride and Prejudice” became a movie (starring Greer Garson and Lawrence Olivier) in 1940, a BBC miniseries (starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth) in 1995 and a movie—again!—(starring Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen) in 2005, Janeites (as Austen superfans are known) have been around since 1870, when “A Memoir of Jane Austen” by J. E. Austen-Leigh was first published. And Holdridge promises even the staunchest Janeites will be satisfied with the accuracy, majesty and fancy Empire-waisted costumes of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.”
“The Janeites!” she said. “There are little Easter eggs for them, of course, throughout the play.”
Here’s the thing: “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” wasn’t written by Austen, but rather by contemporary playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, as a sequel of sorts to “Pride and Prejudice.” And Holdridge, who has worked closely with Gunderson in the past, thinks it is a perfect vehicle for festive family fun: “There’s humor, there’s wit, there’s physical comedy, there’s romance.
“It’s great to direct plays that are comedies about strong, funny women,” she explained, noting that the Miss Bennett of the play’s title was actually the odd one out in Austen’s tale of matchmaking and nearly-missed opportunities. “Mary, I think, is a heroine for today, a feminist heroine. She was reading a lot in ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ playing piano badly—and she was only 16 or 17. She was very much the middle child, with these two brilliant older sisters and these silly, flirty younger sisters who were her mom’s favorites.
“The playwrights wondered what would happen if, like all teenagers do, she started to learn and grow.”
And that projection of the cerebral, artistic girl who eschewed chasing potential husbands in favor of enjoying a treatise or a sonata has led to a romantic comedy that tugs at the heartstrings. “I’ve seen it so many times,” the director confessed, “yet there are moments where I find myself getting a little teary at an improbable love story coming together.
“These are two people who go through the agony of, ‘I’m never going to find happiness…I’m never going to find someone to love me.’ And then, when they find each other—and maybe I’m just a sappy romantic—it’s very moving.”
Katie Kleiger agrees. In fact, the actor, who grew up just 15 minutes away from Round House Theatre and attended Sidwell Friends before heading to boarding school at Interlochen Arts Academy and then to the University of Minnesota to hone her craft, gets a special satisfaction from seeing these romantic dreams come true for Mary Bennet, who she plays in the production.
“It’s unique,” said Kleiger. “A lot of Christmas stories are filled with joy and cheer, but there’s more to this story. You get a lovely journey—a real journey—that’s all about two humans falling in love.”
Kleiger comes to the Bennet family fresh. “I actually read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ for the first time to prepare for this show,” she admitted. “I saw the Kiera Knightley version, but I heard the BBC version is the one to watch if you’re a Janeite.”
Kleiger was surprised to find that Mary Bennet wasn’t a bigger character in Austen’s original novel, but once she got to know the “nerdy, quirky, quiet” Bennet sister, she decided to create her from scratch—and she hasn’t looked back.
“I absolutely love it!” she exclaimed. “I, Katie Kleiger, would choose to play Mary Bennet any day! Because I love ‘the nerd’—I love the glasses—I love her and I think her lack of social skills is so endearing and adorable.
“I’m biased, but I think she’s great.”
Kleiger said that watching Mary evolve and grow ever more sure of herself is one of the play’s pleasures, although she pointed out that it’s fun, and funny, and heartwarming all around.
“This is about Mary discovering that she can have more in life, even though she’s been viewed as being different,” Kleiger observed. “She’s been invisible, and to be truly seen for the first time in her life—to be a woman who’s loved for who she is, who doesn’t have to change at all—that’s a beautiful thing to be able to do.
“Ultimately, we’re doing a show about love and about family,” she added. “Those things are so important right now: love, and accepting everyone for who they are.”
“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” runs through Dec. 23 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. For tickets, which range from $10 to $70, call 240-644-1100 or visit roundhousetheatre.org.