Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Well, I have good news for you, as The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley, now in production at Marin Theatre Company, has a full complement of upstairs/downstairs characters meeting the challenges of life together in a large English country house. Granted, the action in The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley takes place a century before the goings-on in "Downton Abbey," but the primary tropes of class distinction, changing times, duty and honor are all on display.
The action all takes place in the kitchen of Pemberley Estate (wonderfully realized by scenic designer Wilson Chin), where Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (David Everett Moore), the primary love interest in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice lives. Now married to Elizabeth Bennet (Melissa Ortiz), the protagonist of the novel, the couple have invited Elizabeth's sister Lydia (Madeline Rouverol) to stay for Christmas, despite the fact that Lydia's husband George Wickham (Kenny Toll), a childhood friend of Mr. Darcy's is most decidedly not welcome at Pemberley, due to his past roguish behavior.
Downstairs, footman Brian (August Browning) runs afoul of Mrs. Reynolds (Jennie Brick), the cook, seemingly for being too cheerful and optimistic. "Isn't Christmas supposed to make people merry?" he wonders. Brian is merry, for he has recommended a childhood friend, Cassie, for the position of housemaid, and Mrs. Reynolds has hired her. Ever wise, the old cook can sense the sparks flying between the two, even though Brian insists that Cassie is "a friend, not a ... woman."
Preparations for the holidaybaking, decorating (including a Christmas tree, apparently unknown in England at the time, but referenced as "a popular German tradition")occupy both the upstairs and downstairs residents of Pemberley, but the plot only kicks into gear when the banished George Wickham arrives, drunk and bruised from an altercation of some sort, holding secrets that will be revealed in act two.
Playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melconwho also wrote the very popular Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, which made its world premiere at Marin Theatre Company in 2016have created a delightful, accessible bit of holiday fare that goes down as easily as one of the biscuits (cookies on this side of the pond) Mrs. Reynolds bakes for the guests. In the tradition of the source material, there is a powerful (without being overbearing) feminist message to The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley. Elizabeth seems on an equal footing with her husband Mr. Darcy, and Cassie stands up for herself and declares an independence that is unusual for a woman of her time: "I want my own life," she states. "This is more precious than anything a man could ever offer me."
The cast is marvelous, playing the comedy gently, and never overworking the drama when it comes. Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian keeps the action moving swiftly, spreading the action through the spacewhich feels more expansive than the confines of the Marin Theatre would otherwise indicate. There is always something interesting to look at, without it ever seeming forced or overly stage-y.
Marin Theatre Company, and playwrights Gunderson and Melcon, have created a lovely holiday concoction for Bay Area audiences: melt in your mouth, with just a touch of spice. If it's a bit lightweight, so what? It's Christmas, and a couple of hours in a fictional world where wrongs are righted and charm is the order of the day is just the thing to counteract the stresses of the holiday season. (And will go a long way toward scratching that "Downton Abbey" itch!)
The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley, through December 16, 2018, at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Sundays at 7:30pm, with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets range from $25-$70, and are available at marintheatre.org, or by calling the box office at 415-388-5208.