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REVIEW: Uproarious Family Drama in The Wickhams (Jungle Theater)

Cassie (Roshni Desai), one of the staff at Mr. and Mrs. Darcy’s Pemberley estate lights a candle as the holidays return to Jane Austen’s world. Photo by Rich Ryan.

If you’re wondering how big a deal Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice is some two centuries after its publication, consider the following. Yesterday, the most-downloaded eBook on Project Gutenberg was A Christmas Carol. The second most-downloaded eBook – the day after Christmas, mind you – was Pride and Prejudice. There’s clearly a great deal of interest in the world, and the sequel play The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley is both a symptom and a cure.

The Wickhams, now playing at the Jungle Theater, is itself a sequel to that theatre’s hit 2017 production  of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Both works were penned by the dynamic duo of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, and one imagines that the pair will continue to pen more sequels in years to come. While Christmas at Pemberley focused on the much-neglected Mary (her, ahem, limited appearances in Pride and Prejudice are tracked in this convenient list of excerpts), The Wickhams focuses on Lydia and her husband George Wickham. You might therefore expect that a third sequel will focus on Kitty, who might best be summarized as her younger sister’s partner in crime for much of Pride and Prejudice.

How many things can go wrong over the holidays? Tension builds between 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). Photo by Rich Ryan.

If you’re a devoted Austen fan, you may at this point be aware that a key plot point of Christmas at Pemberley diverged from Jane Austen’s own remarks to family and friends. This is a minor matter – The Wickhams requires no advance knowledge of the prior play to enjoy. The script is witty, the complications abounding, and the family holiday drama quotient high. The day after Christmas, it seemed that the audience members were especially enjoying themselves, with many whispered remarks about little moments in the script. Intermission, too, held a vibrant buzz of show-related conversation.

One of the excellent things about Gunderson and Melcon’s script is how many elements with contemporary resonance have been worked into the script…without, for the most part, their seeming overly intrusive. Another is the incredible drollness of housekeeper Mrs. Reynolds, masterfully played by Angela Timberman. Reynolds/Timberman steals scene after scene, both in comedic and serious moments, and if the playwrights’ work in this vein continues, the character seems poised for at least a one-act play of her own. [Editor’s note: a prequel named Raising Mr. Darcy would sell like hotcakes.] It’s a credit to Christina Baldwin’s directing that the comedic moments do not derail the overall plot, and that the more sentimental portions do not veer into maudlin territory.

Lydia Bennet Wickham (Kelsey Didion) escapes from family drama for a moment with Mrs. Reynolds (Angela Timberman). Photo by Rich Ryan.

It’s a truism that no historian likes a historical film, and that music historians are generally aggrieved by anachronisms in period movie and theatre soundtracks. It’s perhaps a measure of the play’s other successes that the latter criticism emerges with this production. There is much to love at The Wickhams, even as it diverges from Austen’s own remarks on the aftermath of these characters. If its greatest sin is that a specialist in music of the period questions a few selections, the production is strong indeed.

About the Raisins

Wondering about Mr. Darcy’s dislike of raisins in The Wickhams? Dried grapes are more controversial than you might think – according to a recent poll, almost half the U.S. population dislikes them outside of a few contexts like breakfast cereal and oatmeal-raisin cookies. Mr. Darcy may have also acquired a dislike because of a bad experience with snap-dragon, a parlor game in which the players try to snatch raisins out of a burning bowl of brandy…with their bare hands.

The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley plays through December 30 at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine