BWW Review: THE WICKHAMS: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY: How The Downstairs Half Lives
The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley
Written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, Directed by Shana Gozansky; Scenic Designer, Apollo Mark Weaver; Costume Designer, Miranda Kau Giurleo; Lighting Designer, Brian J. Lilienthal; Sound Designer, David Remedios; Producer, Peter Crewe; Production Stage Manager, Maegan A. Conroy; Dialect Coach, Wendy Overly; Fight Captain, Maegan A. Conroy; Fight Stylist, Omar Robinson
Performances through December 22 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; box Office 978-654-4678 or www.mrt.org
Merrimack Repertory Theatre presents the second installment of what will become a trilogy co-written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, about the close-knit sisters from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Paralleling the upstairs Christmas-time festivities featured in last year's Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley at Pemberley Estate, the lives, loves, and intrigues of the downstairs denizens take center stage in The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley. Mr. Darcy, lord of the manor, his wife Lizzy, and her sister Lydia are all back to link the two worlds, and they are joined by Lydia's roguish husband, George Wickham, and three of the hard-working house staff.
Director Shana Gozansky sets a breezy pace to keep all of the balls in the air as the story bounces hither and yon, reflecting the hectic preparations leading up to the holiday. Various members of the family are descending upon Pemberley and the housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds (Laura Latreille), operates like a field general, ordering massive quantities from the grocer and directing her underlings to attend to every anticipated whim of the guests. Cassie (Philana Mia) is a new housemaid brought on to shore up the troops, much to the delight of Brian (Paul Melendy), the footman who was raised on the Estate. Their friendly banter establishes the tone of the relationship that will form between them, but Mrs. Reynolds runs a tight ship and warns them not to become distracted.
Gunderson and Melcon use creative license to expand upon Lydia Wickham's (Katie Grindeland) storyline, beyond the boundaries of Austen's work. Although she is an immature flibbertigibbet, the young woman is more to be pitied than censured, stuck in an unsatisfactory marriage to ne'er-do-well George (Ed Hoopman). Big sister Lizzy (Alexis Bronkovic) and her responsible husband (Lewis D. Wheeler) take a protective interest in Lydia, especially in light of their negative feelings toward George. In fact, he is persona non grata around Pemberley and banned from the premises by Darcy. Lydia is unaware of the reason for the bad blood between them, but everyone else is informed and, when George shows up unexpectedly, they do their best to keep his presence a secret from her and Mr. Darcy. Complications ensue, even putting Mrs. Reynolds in a compromising position as her tender feelings for George get in the way of her loyalty to the household and her duties.
Latreille brilliantly walks that emotional tightrope as part of a finely-tuned characterization that anchors the play. She inhabits Mrs. Reynolds in body language, gait, accent, and attitude, serving as the fiber that connects all of the other characters to the story and each other. It is said more than once that the household would not run without Mrs. Reynolds and Latreille's performance is nearly as vital to the success of the production. That being said, there is not a weak link in the cast and, as good as they are individually, they also form a tight ensemble. Mia is enchanting as the village girl who knows her place, yet is not afraid to speak her mind, and shares sweet chemistry with Melendy, who straddles the line between warmth and devilishness.
Speaking of devilish, Hoopman plays the incorrigible wandering Wickham with relish. He somehow manages to garner a modicum of sympathy, even as he cries "poor me" while breaking all of the rules. His jovial, light-hearted façade fools no one but Lydia, and once she wises up, George's claws lash out. Grindeland does a good job of transforming from the naive child bride into the sadder, but wiser woman. As much as Lydia tries the patience of those around her, Grindeland brings out her charming and likable qualities, and she and Bronkovic renew their seamless sisterly bond established in Miss Bennet. Wheeler is new to the role of Darcy this time around, but he cuts a dashing figure of someone to the manor born, and he and Bronkovic are deliciously well-matched as young marrieds.
The Wickhams is set in December, 1815, and takes place on the lower floor of Pemberley in a spacious room with a long table where the servants gather and work. There is an exterior door, a pair of entrances from a hallway, and an oft-used staircase seen upstage. Apollo Mark Weaver designs a utilitarian space that reflects a downstairs appropriate for the Estate, and lighting designer Brian J. Lilienthal and sound designer David Remedios add dimension and enhance the activities that occur in the room. Miranda Kau Giurleo has designed a stunning array of costumes that range from the sisters' gowns, to the gentlemen's suits, to the footman's uniform, and the practical work clothes of the housemaids. Additional effective contributions are provided by dialect coach Wendy Overly and fight stylist Omar Robinson.
At this time of year, it is the rare theater company that can produce a show that they or someone else hasn't already done a zillion times. For the second year in a row, Merrimack Repertory Theatre is staging a fresh, new play, and one that is suitable for family viewing. It doesn't reference any religion, there's no crass commercialism, and a Christmas tree appears only in passing. Despite all that, the family relationships and the decency of the characters (George notwithstanding) convey the warmth and good will that we hope to find for the holiday season. The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley is a welcome continuation of the story and I look forward to part three.
Photo credit: Meghan Moore (Paul Melendy, Philana Mia, Katie Grindeland, Alexis Bronkovic, Lewis D. Wheeler, Laura Latreille)