Characters from Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" reunite for a holiday sequel in "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley," which opens Friday night at the Artistic Civic Theatre.
"There's nothing like doing a show at Christmas," said Taylor Witherow, who plays Lydia Wickham, the youngest of the Bennet sisters. "It's the best time of the year."
This show "will get you in the holiday spirit," seconded Rob Thompson, the production's director. "It's good family entertainment, and there are some big laughs."
A significant portion of that humor can be attributed to Charles Bingley, "doting" husband to Jane Bennet and "a bit of a goofball," said Adam Stark, who plays Bingley. "He's quirky, kind and genuine, and he has a bunch of good lines in the show."
Stark's main challenge, in fact, is knowing "when to rein it in" with Bingley, he said. "Because he's such a loose, funny character, you have more room (to play), but you still have to be serious when it's serious. When it shifts tone, you have to be on it, and that's all about timing."
While strong-willed Elizabeth Bennet is the heroine in "Pride and Prejudice," her younger sister, Mary, steps into the spotlight for "Christmas at Pemberley" as family members unite to celebrate the holiday at the home of Elizabeth and her husband, Fitzwilliam Darcy. In addition to Friday's show at 8 p.m., performances are set for 8 p.m. on Saturday, 2 p.m. on Sunday, and 8 p.m. Dec. 5-7.Patrons are encouraged to purchase tickets online at actdalton.org, and seats can also be procured by calling the box office at (706) 278-4796.
And while "Christmas at Pemberley," written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, continues Austen's sensibility and uses characters from "Pride and Prejudice," it can be enjoyed on its own merits, said Meg Phinney, who plays Mary Bennet. "You don't have to know anything about 'Pride and Prejudice.'"
Phinney, a junior majoring in theater at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, read this play prior to auditions and "fell in love" with Mary's character, because the two young ladies share several similarities, she said. "Mary is quiet in her own way, but also strong and passionate."
She has also related to the dynamic between Mary and the other Bennet sisters, Phinney said. "I have two older sisters, and, during rehearsals, I've found myself saying, 'I've had this conversation before with my own sisters.'"
Like Phinney, Witherow "fell into my character perfectly," she said. Lydia Wickham "is irrational, flirtatious, obnoxious, and over the top -- and a lot of fun to play."
Because her husband is absent from the proceedings at Pemberley, she "makes bad decisions," including taking a run at Arthur de Bourgh, who has his sights set on another Bennet sister, Witherow said. "I make advances, and I go after him like a bear -- it's a bear attack, back away."
Phinney's favorite moment of the play occurs when she finally confronts the show's quasi-villain, Anne de Bourgh, she said. "(Mary) stands up for herself and her family, and I love that."
Like Stark, Kirt Johnson is an ACT veteran, and his Darcy and Stark's Bingley -- friends since their school days together and both married to Bennet sisters -- team up in one scene to coach Arthur de Bourgh, who has fallen in love with Mary, Johnson said. "It's his first foray into romance, and we are very familiar with the Bennet sisters."
It's arguably the most hilarious scene in the show, but "it's also very heartfelt," Stark said. "People know what that's like, to be in love and not know what to do, so you ask other people for help."
There's immense "responsibility" in playing a character like Darcy, who is "iconic" and has been portrayed on stage and screen by the likes of Laurence Olivier, Colin Firth and Matthew Rhys, Johnson said. "He's almost a Byronic hero, dark and brooding, and it took Elizabeth to bring out his softer side."
The play's language was also a hurdle, because, while "beautiful, the turns of phrase and grammar are very different than the way we speak now," Johnson said. "You need to say it word for word."
"So much of the humor in the show is quick bits," Stark added. "If the timing isn't on, you won't get the bit."
Fortunately, "we've had a good dialogue coach for the British accents," said Thompson, who is also the manager of the ACT. "The cast is great."
The ACT is also once again sponsoring a community partner for this production. Attendees can bring donations to the ACT for RossWoods Adult Day Services, an adult day care facility in Dalton that serves Whitfield and several other counties. The ACT is collecting 100-300-piece puzzles, wooden puzzles, 8-by-10-inch canvasses for paintings, tempura paint, large coloring books,12-count color pencils and small Bingo prizes. Monetary donations can be made at rosswoods.org.
Johnson has been involved in theater from a young age, and "I love telling stories," he said. "I love working with fellow actors to produce this vision."
Inhabiting various characters can even be therapeutic, he said with a laugh. "I would definitely do this as my full-time job if I could."
Witherow, a member of the cast of Northwest Whitfield High School's one-act "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which recently finished runner-up at the state festival, is attracted to the way acting asks its adherents to "unlock new parts of yourself," she said. "You really have to work as a person to be able to bring out those emotions."
As an actor, one has no control over the mindset of patrons who visit the theater, but the charge remains the same every show, Stark said. "Make them feel better than when they came in."