LOWELL — It is a truth universally acknowledged that sequels are usually cobbled together for the cheesiest, most mercenary of reasons: as a way of wringing even more lucre from a famous franchise.
But not always. Sometimes, as with Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s beguiling production of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,’’ a sequel feels like a worthy homage to an influential forebear as well as a demonstration that said forebear retains a certain cultural valence today.
The figure in question is Jane Austen, that peerless chronicler of the thrust-and-parry of social intrigue. Austen’s classic novel “Pride and Prejudice’’ is the jumping-off point and inspiration for “Christmas at Pemberley,’’ which is set in 1815 at the Pemberley estate where the former Elizabeth Bennet now lives with her husband, Fitzwilliam Darcy.
But neither Lizzie (Alexis Bronkovic) nor Mr. Darcy (Jesse Hinson) are the primary focus this time. Nor is the eldest Bennet sister, Jane (Victoria Grace), who is married to Charles Bingley (Shawn K. Jain), nor the youngest, Lydia (Katie Grindeland), who is also married, albeit unhappily.
No, the Bennet who occupies the spotlight in this 2016 play is the bookish middle sister, Mary (an outstanding Amanda Collins). It is Mary’s quietly determined quest for a “larger life’’ — and her attempt to figure out whether an awkward but ardent new suitor fits into that quest — that forms the spine of “Christmas at Pemberley.’’
Such emphasis on a brainy, independent-minded, and underappreciated woman should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the work of Lauren Gunderson, who cowrote “Pemberley’’ with Margot Melcon, a dramaturg for whom this is her first play. The almost preternaturally prolific Gunderson, whose plays consistently rank among the most-produced in the country, has made it her business to shine a spotlight on women neglected by posterity. In works like “Silent Sky,’’ which dramatized the career of the early-20th-century Cambridge astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, and “Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight,’’ which brought the 18th-century mathematician and physicist Emilie du Chatelet to swashbuckling life, Gunderson has emphasized the struggles of pioneering women against the constraints of their time and place.
Mary, of course, is a fictional character, but it’s still gratifying to see her get her dramatic due. Strong of mind but vulnerable to heartbreak, Mary is a role requiring expressivity and subtlety — qualities that Collins has always possessed in spades. Her portrayal of Mary is loaded with wit, heart, and personality, while conveying the sense — crucial with an Austen-created heroine — of churning depths beneath the polite surfaces. All in all, it’s the best performance I’ve seen Collins deliver since her brilliant star turn in Gloucester Stage Company’s 2015 production of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s “Out of Sterno.’’
Vichet Chum makes for a nimble and likable Arthur de Bourgh, Mary’s suitor, but Chum needs to dial back the goofiness. While he and Collins make us believe the intellectual rapport between Arthur and Mary, built on a shared love of literature and ideas, it’s harder to credit that Mary is romantically captivated by ungainly Arthur. (The emphasis on learning is ingeniously underscored by James J. Fenton’s scenic design for the large drawing room and library at the Pemberley estate, which covers the walls with the text from an 1815 scientific volume, splitting the difference between realism and abstraction.) The rest of the cast is solid, including an enjoyably disruptive Veronika Duerr as a late-arriving figure who creates turmoil in the Pemberley household.
Director Daniels endows “Christmas at Pemberley’’ with the stateliness and fluidity of a quadrille, complete with a couple of dance-like movements by his cast. The vibe fits, because the world conjured by Austen was one long and intricate social dance, and she was a keen observer of the steps people take when they are trying to impress or deceive or seduce.
But Daniels doesn’t scant the play’s humor. At one point, Arthur wields a chair, lion-tamer-like, to hold off the aggressively flirtatious Lydia. At another, after matters have gone awry with Arthur, Mary pounds away on a pianoforte while sister Jane voices concern that she is so upset. “I am not upset,’’ Mary snaps. “Beethoven is upset!’’ I suspect that if she were alive to see “Christmas at Pemberley,’’ Austen would not be upset.
MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY
Play by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon
Directed by Sean Daniels
Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre. At Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, Lowell. Through Dec. 23. Tickets $24-$66. At 978-654-4678, www.mrt.org