Caroline Whelehan Photo submitted
First printed in 1813, Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” has since been dubbed the original romcom. Fitting to today’s sensibility it is only appropriate that an imagined sequel should hit the stage.
This Friday, Nov. 23, Lauren Gunderson’s “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” opens a one-month run at the Capital Repertory Theatre. The play, written more than 200 years after Austen’s original work, is a continuation of the story involving the beloved Bennet sisters — Jane, Elizabeth, Kitty, Lydia and Mary.
“It’s very, very bright and witty and fun and charming. It totally has Jane Austen’s voice in it even though it’s not Jane Austen,” said Caroline Whelehan, who stars as Jane Bingley. Gunderson reintroduces audiences to the Bennets, the Bingleys and the Darcys two years later.
Unlike with Pride, the focus of attention is now placed on middle sister Mary. Mary has grown tired of her role as the dutiful daughter and dreams of forging a new path. When the Bennets gather at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Darcy for the holidays, an unexpected encounter brings about the possibility of an intellectual match and maybe even love for her. “Everybody is a little more sophisticated now. They’ve grown into this new life.”
For Whelehan, stepping into the role of an Austen period piece is a particular holiday treat. Spending the holidays in Albany is becoming a habit for the stage actress. First, there is the prospect of jumping onto a flight back home to California just before Christmas, which she has done twice before since her Capital Rep debut in “The Secret Garden” four years ago. It is also, however, her second role since appearing in “Sense and Sensibility.”
“I love the writing,” said Whelehan. “The characters are so loveable. I can absolutely identify with them.” Though the characters live in the early 1800s, the familial bond between the sisters is “timeless.” Whelehan has a younger brother as her only sibling, but she said she is still able to relate to the Bennets.
“I have a couple of friends who I’ve known since I was a young teen, and we’re still really really close,” she said. “I was just telling one of them on the phone the other day, since I don’t have any sisters, I’ve been pulling from my relationships with them… They’re so dear to me, I consider them my sisters.”
Now, as the actress calls New York City her home, and has been for a little more than a year, she’s able to draw from the experience of being away from her “sisters” to her performance on stage.
Life in New York City has called for its own need for adjustments in Whelehan’s life. The hustle of living within a New York Minute while under constrained to public transportation “is definitely a beast of its own,” she said.
“Luckily, I’m the type that likes a fast-paced environment like that,” Whelehan said. “But, it’s a huge adjustment from where I grew up. But, luckily I have friends from California in the city, so that helps, too. We’re on the same wavelength. We sort of have that and connect in that way. That makes it easier.”
In Albany, the California native has been able to find a slice of home.
“My favorite place — this is embarrassing — my favorite place to go is Honest Weight Food Co-op,” said Whelehan. The cast has been rehearsing since October, and she said she’s already shown the coop off to a few of her castmates. A self-professed “health freak,” she said loves being able to find her favorite vegan snacks. “I love that they have kombucha on tap.”
The cast recently got together for a movie night. The picture of choice, of course, was “Pride and Prejudice.” “It invites you to be open and loving,” said Whelehan. A common thread that has woven into many aspects of her present life spent in the Capital District. Working on a production that takes place during Christmas, and doing so since October, will do that. She admitted to running on the treadmill the other day while listening to Christmas music, “because I’m totally in the spirit.
“But, you know, the spirit of Christmas doesn’t always have to be trees and presents and crazy music,” she said. “It can be this warmth. The warmth in a room, the willingness to be open and to love. I think that is the spirit that has been brought to our cast, too.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.