Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Happily, this year Lyric Arts Main Street Stage returns to Pemberley with Gunderson and Melcon's sequel to last year's play, titled The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley. The enormously clever premise is that the action in this play happens concurrently with the action in last year's, only while Miss Bennett's characters are family and their guests, and the action occurs in the elegant public spaces of Pemberley's main floor, The Wickhams takes place wholly downstairs, the province of the staff who run the house, primarily in the room where the service staff take their meals, and the characters include a few members of that staff along with a few family members who have cause to descend from the level of refined gentility upstairs into the realm where work is done.
The Wickhams of the title are George Wickham and his wife Lydia, the former Lydia Bennet and next to youngest of the five Bennet sisters invented by Jane Austen in her original tale. While the playwrights do a decent job of revealing backstory, for the uninitiated it may help going in to know that in "Pride and Prejudice", the impetuous and attention-seeking Lydia, just 14 years old, elopes with Wickham. Mr. Darcy already held Wickham in contempt because Wickham had tried to take advantage of Darcy's sister to get his hands on a share of Pemberley's wealth. Moreover, Darcy knew Wickham to be a philander and a deeply indebted gambler. Darcy pursues Wickham and pays him off to marry Lydia, preserving Lydia's honor, but he forbids George Wickham from ever again setting foot in Pemberley.
That brings us to the story at hand. It is Christmas at Pemberley, a few years later. Elizabeth is hosting her entire family for the holidays. Lydia writes that she will attend without Mr. Wickham; knowing he is unwelcome, but wanting to save face, she claims he is away on business. Below stairs we meet head housekeeper Mrs. Reynolds, who has been with the family for decades. We also meet a footman named Brian with a keen mind for devising mechanical solutions to household problems, and a newly hired housemaid named Cassie, a girl who grew up impoverished for whom a position in service at Pemberley is a golden opportunity.
There are plausible reasons for the master and mistress of the house to appear downstairs, either to consult with Mrs. Reynolds on one or another matter regarding their holiday hospitality, or to seek some escape from the tumult of the gathered company on the floor above. Lydia also finds reasons to show up below, some to do with the repair of a dress being worked on by Cassie, in whom Lydia finds a friend. Given the title of the play, we are not terribly surprised when Wickham shows up–disheveled, bleeding, drunk, and demanding to see his wife. For Mrs. Reynolds, his presence poses a conflict. Wickham's father worked at Pemberley as a steward, so she has known Wickham since his infancy. Though he is barred from the house, she still harbors tender feelings, making it unbearable to believe that there is no good within him, and she hangs on to the hope for his redemption.
Wickham's use of his charm and cunning to control Lydia, Mrs. Reynold's torn feelings, and Darcy's rage toward Wickham are serious plot elements, and The Wickhams does show us a darker side of Christmas at Pemberley than we saw in Miss Bennet. For one thing, the setting is far less grand, being working quarters (the terrific set design is by Greg Vanselow). The rooms upstairs are elegant and decked out for Christmas, including a Christmas tree, a practice recently arrived in England by way of Germany, and upon which Elizabeth insists. Too, there are conversations about the class distinctions so prevalent, with a chance to work in service at a grand house the peak to which rural villagers can aspire if they have not been born into a farm or a shop of some kind.
Still, the playwrights intersperse lighter fare, such as an incipient romance (you'll know from the first scene that this is coming) and the playful banter between Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, bits of funny business about the Christmas tree and about Mrs. Reynold's impossible to resist orange biscuits. The play feels like a comedy, albeit less in the romantic comedy vein and more akin to "black comedy," comedy with a shadow hanging over its head. Even its conclusion falls short of a totally happy ending, but rather one in which there is hope for future happiness, contingent on the choices individuals make moving forward.
Director Marci Lucht skillfully maintains a balance between the comedic and serious elements of the play, leaving the audience with a satisfied feeling of having experienced both. Lucht makes good use of a set that allows us to see through cut-outs a servants' corridor and back stairs behind the dining room, and behind that, a sewing room. Through the portals and around the corners, characters can often be seen catching bits of conversation they are not meant to hear.
The use of music lends a great deal of festive spirit to the production, with an opening Christmas song by the full cast, accompanied by cello, violin and bodhrán. The violinist strolls in and out of the action throughout the play, providing musical underscoring and smoothing transitions. The full cast and instruments return for a lively musical entr'acte before the second act begins, this time with a spot of dancing to remind us that we are meant to be merry.
The show is extremely well cast. Eva Gemlo conveys Elizabeth's winning blend of spunk, warmth and practicality, and radiates a positive energy that leavens the heaviness of the direst concerns. Ben Qualley has a nice quality of reticent charm as Fitzwilliam Darcy, but also displays the full measure of his fury toward Wickham. Gemlo and Qualley make a handsome looking couple, with a lovely and playful chemistry together that works beautifully throughout the production.
Grace Klapak captures the essence of Lydia Wickham: her impulsiveness, her tendency to cover up hard facts by putting on airs, and her deep yearning to be noticed and loved. As George Wickham, Felipe delivers the requisite swagger and arrogance along with an ability to turn on his romantic charm when needed to entrap Lydia. Kayla Hambek seems, at first, too young for the long-serving housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, but by dint of an authoritative performance she earns our belief in the character. Michael Quadrozzi is winningly earnest as the footman Brian, and as Cassie, Nadia Franken shows a perfect blend sincerity and sass.
High marks go to Christy Branham and Jessica Moore for their costume designs, including the brash military uniform worn by Wickham and Lydia's dress, which, being Lydia, is conspicuously showier than her older sister's. Gillian Constable has done a fine job as dialect coach, with the characters speaking in appropriate accents. The production is well lit by Shannon Elliott, with crisp sound design by Katie Korpi.
You don't need to be familiar with "Pride and Prejudice"–be it by book, film or other media–to enjoy and follow the narrative of The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley, though as stated above, a wee bit of background may help. The problems that face the characters, as well as the attributes that make them endearing or detestable, all become clear in short order. Playwrights Gunderson and Melcon have crafted a play that does not skirt away from serious matters, yet still delivers a large helping of holiday cheer.
What would really be delightful would be to see The Wickhams in repertory with Miss Bennet as well as the third, most recent addition to these plays, Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley, which is also by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon. But if we can have them served up one year at a time, that is still a lovely theatrical gift for the holiday season.
The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley runs through December 22, 2023, at at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage, 420 East Main Street, Anoka MN. For tickets and information, please call 763-422-1838 or visit lyricarts.org.
Playwrights: Lauren Gunderson & Margot Melcon; Director: Marci Lucht; Scenic Design: Greg Vanselow; Costume Design: Christy Branham & Jessica Moore; Lighting Design: Shannon Eliott; Sound Design: Katie Korpi; Props Designer: Kat Walker; Intimacy Director and Fight Choreographer: Callie Aho; Music Director: Nadia Franzen; Dialect Coach: Gillian Constable; Stage Manager: Dallas Williams; Assistant Stage Manager: Kathryn Humnick.
Cast: Felipe Escudero (George Wickham), Nadia Franzen (Cassie), Eva Gemlo (Elizabeth Darcy), Kayla Hambek (Mrs. Reynolds), Grace Klapak (Lydia Wickham), Michael Quadrozzi (Brian), Ben Qualley (Fitzwilliam Darcy).