A tableau vivant: Cassie (Roshni Desai), Brian (Jesse LaVercombe), Mrs. Reynolds (Angela Timberman), Mr. Darcy (James Rodríguez), Elizabeth Bennet Darcy (Sun Mee Chomet), and Lydia Bennet Wickham (Kelsey Didion) in the Jungle Theater production of The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley. Photo by Rich Ryan.
The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley, now playing at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, is the latest sequel to Pride and Prejudice by the playwriting duo Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon. It is charming, well-executed companion piece to last year’s hit, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. It is also, surely, the sweetest of holiday shows you’ll find on any Twin Cities stage.
Director Christina Baldwin calls this play a “side-quel” because the dramatic action takes place simultaneously with the action of Miss Bennet. So ardently do I love and admire Miss Bennet that I worried that this latest Pemberley play could not be possibly equal its predecessor. Fortunately, The Wickhams is as witty and wonderful as its sister play (so to speak). Much of the setup looks familiar, too: it is Christmas 1815, and we are once again at Pemberley, the lavish country estate of Fitzwilliam Darcy (James Rodriguez). This time, Gunderson and Melcon shift the focus from upstairs to downstairs, and we find ourselves in a dreamy, expansive, melon-green basement kitchen – exquisitely designed by Chelsea M. Warren – with “the help” and frequent visits from the upstairs inhabitants.
In Austen’s novels, servants are mostly background scenery to the affairs of the genteel: mostly we hear of them opening doors or preparing carriages. Occasionally, we get a name, as with Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs. Reynolds, Pemberley’s hard-working, no-nonsense chief housekeeper (Angela Timberman). Generally, however, their importance is limited to how their treatment by their employers shows those employers’ character. Here, the authors introduce and develop two additional servant characters: Brian, Pemberley’s young footman/handyman (played with great magnetism and finesse by Jesse Lavercombe) and Cassie (a superb Roshni Desai), a temporary hire for Pemberley’s busy Christmas season who dreams of becoming a permanent employee.
The titular Wickhams are Lydia Bennet Wickham (Kelsey Didion) and George Wickham (Nate Cheeseman, convincingly caddish). Mr. Wickham, as you might recall, was the profligate, debt-ridden scoundrel who ran off with the 16-year-old Lydia towards the end of Pride and Prejudice. George had no intention of marrying Lydia, and their affair threatened to ruin the entire Bennet family’s social standing. Only the intervention of Elizabeth Bennet’s wealthy, Byronic suitor Mr. Darcy “prevailed” upon Mr. Wickham to marry Lydia – and by prevail, I mean bribe with a substantial dowry. Later, Elizabeth Bennet married Mr. Darcy, and now the whole family is back at Pemberley to celebrate the holidays – the whole family, that is, except for Mr. Wickham (who, Mr. Darcy has made clear, is not welcome). No one knows where George is now, not even Lydia.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Gunderson and Melcon brilliantly capture the heightened idiom of Austen’s world. What makes this writing team so remarkable, here as well as in Miss Bennet, is the consistency of their plays’ characters with their originals in the novel. The playwrights are also expert at translating the kind of emotional complexity that, in the Austen texts, is usually only verbally communicated into dramatic action. (Austen describes the characters’ trains of thought and self-reflections; she doesn’t much physicalize her character’s inner life.) The ways in which Lydia, who comes off in the novel as childish and superficial, is deepened is notable. Here, she is endowed with rich psychological depth and certain traits – not particularly admirable in the novel – are developed into qualities that make her endearing, including her capacity for expressing affection.
There is a long-standing debate over the question of whether Austen should be regarded as a truly feminist writer or as simply a realistic observer of the limitations and barriers confronting the women of her era within her genteel circles. In The Wickhams, Gunderson and Macoln offer a nuanced approach to questions about the feminism within Pride and Prejudice. Here. Elizabeth Bennet’s behavior toward Lydia reminds us of the uncomfortable truth that not all feminists – or favorite proto-feminist characters – are or have been committed to sisterhood. The plot turns on Lydia’s struggle to extract information about her husband and the ugly circumstances of her marriage from those, such as Elizabeth, who withhold it. For most of the play, Lydia thus remains ignorant of much of her husband’s backstory, which casts her perspective of their relationship in a very particular light. It’s through Elizabeth’s behavior towards Lydia that we recognize Elizabeth’s chief flaw, her prejudice or rash judgment of people’s motivations as well as their capacity for moral growth.
In the novel, the prejudice is directed upward, towards Mr. Darcy, on account of his anti-social behavior and class snobbery. In this play, Elizabeth’s prejudice manifests as paternalism and is redirected downward to her least-refined, least-accomplished sister. Elizabeth essentially infantilizes her sister, keeping Lydia from making informed decisions about her own life and future. This brings us to the servants, who Lydia visits to converse with on more level terms, in ways that highlight themes of proto-feminism and classism within the household.
Some Austenian virtues, like honesty, translate across class lines. Others, like a zealous work ethic, are for the most part class-specific. This can create some dissonance. As we see the servants’ aspirations unfold against the manor household, one gets a sense of some of the challenges Gunderson/Melcon face in adapting Austen to a 21st century sensibility. Whether one sees Austen as ultimately feminist, and as a critic of class snobbery, she is not a proponent for social upheaval or radical systematic economic reform. Low-born people Brian and Cassie can dream of a better life, but should they (like Mr. Wickham) aspire to become equals of the Darcy family, they would be regarded as over-reachers.
It also seems a bit ironic that despite Mr. Darcy’s extravagant wealth and privilege, it is Mr. Wickham who embodies a sense of entitlement and ingratitude. In the play, George voices his resentment of class and status divisions; while he is despicable in many ways, the social critique seems at least somewhat justified. This makes an interesting point of debate for the audience: we to admire the work ethic of Cassie, Brian, and Mrs. Reynolds, but yet somehow give Mr. or Mrs. Darcy a total pass despite their not working at all? But that’s the odd thing about adaptations: you insert a little feminism or a bit of progressive thought into a centuries-old, canonical text, and all of sudden all the seams show; you start to see how all hierarchies and inequalities are connected.
The Jungle’s production of The Wickhams is a polished, engaging play that brings out many of these themes in the rich source material. Christina Baldwin is top-notch in her direction and her casting is perfection. Sun Mee Chomet captures Elizabeth Bennet Darcy’s whimsy and over-confidence, giving just a hint of the character’s edginess. Roshni Desai shines as the wisecracking but emotionally genuine Cassie. Both Desai and Lavercombe are marvelous at physical comedy, and their scenes together are both sweet and uproarious. The two actors play together beautifully. The star of the show, though, is the phenomenally talented Twin Cities actor Kelsey Didion.
Didion’s Lydia is the kind of non-showy, layered performance whose depth and complexity unfolds gradually over the course of the play. It is no easy task to make Lydia Bennet Wickham, a character with traits as off-putting as her mother’s, sympathetic – but Didion wins us over by allowing us to glimpse the disquiet and longing that underlies Lydia’ defensiveness and chatty pretentiousness. Didion’s performance physicalizes Lydia’s childlike joy in simple, tactile pleasures: her eyes are drawn to sparkly things, and she skips and sashays to cross a room, simply to feel her skirts twirl, as if she were at a ball. She likes a touch things; like a kitten, she paws at the fringe of a bolt of linen hanging on the indoor laundry line. At one point she relishes a Christmas biscuit with such intense delight, it makes you want to reach out and…well, give her another biscuit.
This is a smart, beautifully performed, and very entertaining show. After two strong entries in a row, though, you might come away with some questions: What will be the focus of Gunderson/Melcon’s next sequel to Pride and Prejudice? Will the writers bring back adorably nerdy Mary Bennet? Will the formidable Mrs. Reynolds find love in her dotage? And what, pray, is going on with Mrs. Charlotte Lucas Collins? Lastly, is there any chance that the stage-stealing puppy from Miss Bennet will make a return appearance? I guess, dear reader, that we shall have to wait until next December to see. In the meantime, enjoy the splendid holiday gift that is The Wickhams.
The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley plays through December 30 at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, MN.