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At Northlight, a beguiling sequel to ‘Pride and Prejudice’

Erik Hellman (from left), Jennifer Latimore, Emily Berman and Aila Peck in "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley" at Northlight Theatre. | Charles Osgood

When you last heard about them — at the end of Jane’s Austen’s ever-engaging masterpiece “Pride and Prejudice” — the five financially challenged Bennet sisters (from oldest to youngest, Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia) were in various states of marriage and singledom.

After much sturm und drang, Elizabeth was to marry the dreamy and wealthy Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. The man-crazed Lydia managed to avoid a catastrophic scandal — marrying Wickham, the soldier and bounder, thanks to the generous (and covert) support of Darcy. And Jane was marrying Mr. Bingley, another well-to-do gentleman. Kitty, initially in the Lydia mold, appeared to be maturing and settling down a bit. As for the plain, bookish, rather literal Mary, Austen seems to suggest she is destined for spinsterdom.

    ‘Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley’
Highly recommended
When: Through Dec. 24
Where: Northlight Theatre,
9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie

     Tickets:$30 – $81
Info: (847) 673-6300;
Run time: 2 hours
with one intermission

Alex Goodrich (from left), Erik Hellman and Tosin Morohunfola in the Northlight Theatre world premiere of "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley." (Photo: Charles Osgood)

Alex Goodrich (from left), Erik Hellman and Tosin Morohunfola in the Northlight Theatre’s world premiere of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.” | Charles Osgood

But now comes “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” the newly imagined, utterly beguiling dramatic “sequel” to Austen’s novel. Written with great panache by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, it is receiving a delicious world premiere production by Northlight Theatre — where Jessica Thebus, an impeccable director, has gathered a stellar cast that moves into 18th century English society as if to the manor born, yet at the same time infuses everything with a thoroughly modern comic edge. The show is a gem — ideal for the holiday season but also sure to prove evergreen.

Picking up the story in 1815, about two years after the book ends, Gunderson and Melcon have set their play on Christmas eve, with Elizabeth (Samantha Beach), and Mr. Darcy, as his wife refers to him, hosting a small gathering at their home — the lavish estate of Pemberley in Derbyshire, inherited by Darcy. And Elizabeth has even added an innovation for the time in England — bringing a large spruce tree into the drawing room in “the German style.” (The exquisite set, designed by Richard and Jacqueline Penrod, easily qualifies for “stately home of England” status, with Melissa Torchia’s beautiful, period-perfect costumes adding to the show’s allure.)

Arriving for the festivities are Charles Bingley (Tosin Morohunfola) and his now-pregnant wife, Jane (Aila Peck); Lydia (Jennifer Latimore), as compulsively flirtatious as ever and trying to put the best face on the fact that her husband is, as always, “traveling”; and Mary (Emily Berman), who would rather read a book or play the pianoforte (at which she is quite masterful) than deal with her youngest sister.

It is Mary — whom we learn was left to live at the Bennet family home and care for the sisters’ aging parents (though she was never consulted about the matter) — who comes into her own in the show and also meets her perfect match in Arthur de Bourgh (Erik Hellman).

Of course, there are obstacles in the pursuit of true love. Chief among them is Anne de Bourgh (Bri Sudia), a wealthy, obnoxiously commanding, class-conscious woman who also happens to be both insecure and lonely. Earlier jilted by Darcy, she is about to “claim” and then be rejected by yet another man.

Watching how all this unfolds is alternately hilarious and touching, and the play has been written with such Austen-like wit and such insight into human nature (especially when it comes to matters of the heart) that even the most passionate Austen fans are sure to applaud. Crucial to the story is the notion of choice and how freedom is primarily a matter of self-determination, although money can certainly play a crucial role.

The impeccable timing with which every scene is played is part of the delight here. And Thebus could not be a more skilled “matchmaker.” Her casting is perfection.

Berman and Hellman are ideally paired. The slender, quietly glamorous Berman makes herself winningly prim yet captures the volcanic spirit and desire to explore the world that lies beneath Mary’s brainy exterior. As Arthur, Hellman also winningly suggests a man more at ease with a book than a conversation, especially one with the opposite sex. But, with a little coaching from the more experienced Darcy and Bingley (the source of a hilarious scene for the three men), he begins to come out of his shell, and Mary does the rest by at once facing off against the fearsome Anne (Sudia, who stole the show in the recent Goodman Theatre production of “Wonderful Town,” gives another memorable performance here) and coincidentally liberating her.

Goodrich and Morohunfola winningly tap into the manners of the English gentry. Latimore, a luminous beauty, is enchanting as the playfully seductive but love-starved Lydia. And Beach and Peck exude the warmth of women who have found their place in marriage – the institution that obsessed Austen but, thanks to “Miss Bennet,” now takes on a more nuanced set of values.

And do note: Mistletoe is in the room.

Emily Berman (with Erik Hellman hiding beneath the desk) in "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley," at Northlight Theatre. (Photo: Charles Osgood)

Emily Berman (with Erik Hellman hiding beneath the desk) in “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” at Northlight Theatre. | Charles Osgood