Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Slipping back into the world of Jane Austen for a brand new experience is as easy as meeting an old friend at a new cafe: you feel at once completely familiar and a bit excited for new discoveries. And with Northlight Theatre’s world premiere of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Malcon’s The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley, their second of three planned sequels to Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice, that feeling is multiplied. Under the seasoned direction of Jessica Thebus, Northlight’s production is smooth and, well, comfortable. (That may also have to do with William Boles’ impressive set design and Christine A. Binder’s lights.)
Anyone who has seen the playwrights’ earlier work, Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley, which also premiered at Northlight, will quickly realize that this new play takes place concurrently with that one, two years after the events of Pride and Prejudice. Where the earlier play focused on Anne Bennett and what was happening upstairs, though, this one takes us below stairs, taking place in the servants’ common room. This area of the household is familiar to anyone who has watched Downton Abbey, and The Wickhams has its own gruff but tender Miss Patmore in Penny Slusher’s wonderful Mrs. Reynolds, who is the secret glue holding Pemberley together as well as the baker of apparently the most addictive cookies in England. Unlike Downton, though, this servants’ area is frequently also the haunt of those who would be more accurately sequestered upstairs, as we see both the Darcys and the Wickhams there.
Whether or not that is really likely, though, their habit of wandering below stairs allows us to watch dual stories play out. While potential romance blossoms between stalwart footman Brian (Jayson Lee) and new maid Cassie (Aurora Real de Asua), we also see the drama of the relationship of George Wickham (Will Mobley) and his wife, Lydia (Jennifer Latimore, who essayed this role in Miss Bennett), whose marriage was hastily arranged in the novel by Mr. Darcy (Luigi Sottile) to prevent scandal in the family of his own new wife Lizzie (Netta Walker).
In this play, Lydia, who still fools herself into believing that the man she ran off with at sixteen is honest and truly loves her, is visiting the Darcys alone while Wickham is “out of town” (which he is far too often). Her husband, she knows, is not allowed at Pemberley on orders of Mr. Darcy, but she has no idea why and no one will tell her what an unprincipled cad he really is. Of course, he shows up nevertheless, drunken and beaten, below stairs, demanding to see his wife and catalyzing multiple conflicts at once.
Mobley does a fine job portraying the scoundrel Wickham. He acts drunk well and allows his character to wear his duplicity like a badge of honor as he plays the sympathetic Mrs. Reynolds like a pianoforte, pleading with her to shelter and help him by reminding her of the close relationship they once had as he was growing up with Darcy. As in Austen, though, he is too base a man to fool anyone for long, especially now, hounded by debts and by the man who for his own reasons punched him in a tavern, and he is quick to reveal his darker side when his games don’t work well.
This happens particularly when he tries to come on to Cassie. (Yeah, sure you’re here because you just miss your wife, George!) De Asua, who here adopts a perfect North England accent, is so immediately likable that you know the second you meet her that Cassie is going to be a love interest, and when she discovers that she is now working in close quarters with her childhood friend Brian, well, so many sparks fly that you’d think someone was stoking the fire. For his part, Lee, whose character is a frustrated inventor, is also instantly likable and we are rooting for them from the start.
As the now happily married Lizzy and Darcy, Sottile and Walker might well have stepped right off the pages of Austen’s novel. With Darcy’s formal attire and Lizzy’s empire waist dress (parts of Izumi Inaba’s flawless costume design), they are exactly what any Austen reader would expect them to be. It’s Latimore’s Lydia who is really the focus here as the actress navigates a rapid and difficult personal development from silly child bride to proto-feminist icon. Lydia is now eighteen and better equipped than before to comprehend the downside of her flirtatious and silly teenage self, and Latimore’s growth here lovingly portrays her journey of discovery.
Though it contains enough direct and indirect references to Pride and Prejudice to make any Austen aficionado smile, The Wickhams is not without its flaws, beginning with those plot contrivances that allow the wealthy upstairs folks to spend so much time downstairs. Wickham is also so blatantly a louse that it seems impossible for Mrs. Reynolds not to realize it much sooner than she does. Further, the momentary rift that develops between Cassie and Brian is far too labored to be anything other than an artifice to create some tension where none should exist. Still, the play is consistently enjoyable and the characters nicely realized, which should make for another major hit for both Northlight and Gunderson, who is already the most produced playwright in the country over the last three years. As a major Jane Austen fan, The Wickhams felt like going home, and it was exactly what the season needed.
The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley is an Eclipse Theatre production now playing at the Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie, IL, until Dec 22. The show runs approximately two hours; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.