Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley
The play takes place at the exact same time and in the same location as Miss Bennet, which is set two years after the events in Austen's novel. However, unlike Miss Bennet, which took place in the main opulent drawing room at Pemberley, the setting has been moved downstairs to the fairly bleak servants' dining room for The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley. The focus has also been shifted from the owners of the estate, Fitzwilliam Darcy and his wife Elizabeth, and her single sister Mary to three members of the Pemberley staff (housekeeper Mrs. Reynolds, footman Brian, and newly hired housemaid Cassie) and the younger Bennet sister Lydia and her philandering husband, George Wickham.
It won't matter if you aren't familiar with the book or the Miss Bennet play to enjoy this production. However, for a quick refresher, "Pride and Prejudice" is set in the early 1800s and centers on the five Bennet sisters, the various romantic relationships they have, and the idea that women could marry for love and not only for wealth or privilege. Elizabeth eventually marries Darcy but not until her sister Lydia has run off with the notorious cad and rake George Wickham. To save the Bennet family's reputation, Darcy forces Wickham to marry Lydia. Miss Bennet followed the only remaining single Bennet sister, the socially awkward Mary, and her newly romantic involvement with a cousin of Darcy's who was also invited to spend Christmas at Pemberley.
For The Wickhams, the plot begins on December 22nd with the arrival of Cassie, a young woman hired as extra help for the Christmas festivities at Pemberley, and follows what happens when Lydia's husband, who is no longer welcome at Darcy's estate, barges into the servant's quarters late one night after a drunken brawl in the hope of scamming money from Lydia's parents. As the dutiful housekeeper Mrs. Reynolds works to keep everything running smoothly at Pemberley, she also hides Wickham and allows him to spend the night in Brian's room as she feels sorry for him. When an incriminating letter is found in Wickham's pocket, it sets in motion a series of events that could break apart the Bennet sisters and bring scandal to the family.
Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon use the same care they did for the Miss Bennet play, and the focus on the inner workings of the Pemberley estate and the relationship between the Darcy family and the individuals who work for them is especially interesting to see. While the relationships between the working and upper classes in a large manor may be familiar to anyone acquainted with the popular TV show "Downton Abbey," how Gunderson and Melcon manage to incorporate information from both the Austen novel and their previous play is quite fun to see. They have also created rich characters and show how all three of the staff are realistic and three-dimensional individuals with their own hopes and dreams. And if you did see the previous play, it's fun to know that, as the events depicted in that play are happening upstairs, we now get to see the servants' reaction to some of those events as well as the rest of drama that unfolds downstairs.
Veronika Duerr, who played a supporting role last season in Miss Bennet, takes over directing duties for the follow-up play and her work here is wonderful. She brings the perfect tone to the production so the humorous moments get laughs and the serious moments ring true. She ensures her cast create realistic portrayals while also making the emotional scenes resonate. I found myself quite moved at the end.
While Apollo Mark Weaver's set design isn't as grand as his design was for Miss Bennet, it is quite realistic, as are the period costumes by Lauren T. Roark. Brian J. Lilienthal's lighting design works very well to depict the changing light in the servant's room from the bright but stark winter days to the dark and shadow filled nights.
The cast in this production shine. Emily Mohney is excellent as the sure-of-herself Cassie, a young woman who is strong and proves that she doesn't need a husband to take care of her. As Brian, the footman who is as devoted to his work as he is to his need to invent things to make life easier, Seth Tucker does a lovely job. Amelia White is superb as Mrs. Reynolds. Darcy says that Reynolds is as much a master of the house as he is and from White's polished portrayal you can easily see how this woman who appreciates restraint and order but also doesn't like change has kept a tight control over Pemberley for years.
Maya Encila does good work in portraying, a loud, silly and foolish young woman. Alex J. Gould has fun playing her lying and cheating husband George, who is simply doing whatever he needs to do in order to survive. Andrea Syglowski and Cecil Washington Jr. are equally as good as the Darcys; they beautifully and realistically portray a couple who are still newlyweds and are very much in love.
Fans of the Austen novel, romance, and holiday entertainment will find much to like in The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley at Arizona Theatre Company.
The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley runs through December 23, 2022, at Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.arizonatheatre.org or call 602-256-6995.
Written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon
Cast: (In alphabetical order)
*Member, Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States