Sunday, November 19, 2023

"The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley" at Lyric Arts

The Christmas at Pemberley play series by Lauren Gunderson and Margo Melcon has become a new #TCTheater holiday* tradition. The playwrights have taken the characters and relationships from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and continued them on into the following years. These plays came to us first through the Jungle Theater, which produced Miss Bennet (focusing on bookish sister Mary) in 2017 to such success that they co-commissioned a sequel, The Wickhams (about Lydia after her elopement with Mr. Wickham), premiering in 2018. After a pandemic pause, they brought us the third play (another co-commissioned rolling world premiere) Georgiana and Kitty (focusing on the friendship between Mr. Darcy's sister and a forgotten Bennet sister) just last year. Also last year, Lyric Arts wisely jumped on this bandwagon, producing the first play in the series, Miss Bennet. This year they're continuing the story with the second play, The Wickhams, the events of which happen concurrently with those of Miss Bennet. One can only hope they'll complete the trilogy next year with Georgiana and Kitty, but for now, head up to charming downtown Anoka for the best Jane Austen fan fic, that "perfectly marries Jane Austen's legacy of female-centered stories in a man's world of property, marriage, and inheritance with modern feminist sensibilities." You can visit Pemberley-in-Anoka Thursdays through Sundays until December 22.

Miss Bennet focuses on bookish sister Mary, who receives short shrift in the original novel, and re-imagines her as a smart, practical, independent woman. In the same way, this play goes deeper in the character of Lydia, who you may remember married Mr. Wickham in a scandal in the novel, and in Miss Bennet keeps up the facade of a happy marriage. The Wickhams allows Lydia to be not just a silly and thoughtless girl whose every decision is made for her, but a more complex young woman who chooses her own life. The Wickhams feels like Jane Austen for the #metoo era. George Wickham represents that charming scoundrel who appears so often in novels (and in real life), and turns that idea on its head, revealing that it's actually not charming to deceive and mistreat women, and women both real and fictional are no longer going to put up with that kind of behavior. Hooray!**

"below stairs" at Pemberley (photo by Molly Weibel)
In a clever twist, the playwrights have set the entire play downstairs in the servants' quarters, giving it a Downton Abbey feel. The busy Christmas holiday is happening upstairs, with many family members mentioned (Jane is pregnant, Mary is falling in love with Arthur, and Kitty is... the subject of the next play). The setting allows the play to focus on the only Bennet sisters who venture downstairs - mistress of the house Elizabeth Darcy, along with her husband Mr. Darcy, and of course Lydia, who is visiting alone, her husband away "on business." When said husband arrives at the kitchen door drunk and bleeding, the good Mrs. Reynolds (super efficient and wonderful housekeeper a la Downton's Mrs. Hughes) tries to hide him from the master of the house, who has banned him permanently from the premises. Servants Brian, who grew up in the house, and Cassie, who has only just arrived to help out with the Christmas rush, are appalled at the rude intruder, and discover his real reason for being there. Of course the Darcys and Lydia eventually find out he's there, at which point Lydia is told the whole truth, painful as it is, and is allowed to determine her own fate.**

sisters Lydia (Grace Klapak) and Lizzie (Eva Gemlo)
(photo by Molly Weibel)
Director Marci Lucht infuses the piece with lightness and humor, almost farce-like at times, aided by the set design which allows us to see into the hallway behind the large kitchen area "below stairs." Characters can be seen coming and going, or hiding, or eavesdropping on conversations. But not everything is funny, we also get some serious moments as the family deals with the very real threat of Wickham. The consistently delightful cast includes one returnee from last year's Miss Bennet - Ben Qualley as the stern but ultimately charming Mr. Darcy. Eva Gemlo is lovely as always as his Lizzie, still in love with her husband but standing up for herself and her sisters above all else. As the flighty and high-spirited Lydia, Grace Klapak walks the fine line between annoying and endearing, and really comes into her own when Lydia does as she's forced to face the truth of her situation. Felipe Escudero perfectly embodies the drunk and charming rogue Wickham, who is soon revealed to be not so charming after all. The downstairs staff also has things well in hand - Kayla Hambek spewing tough love as Mrs. Reynolds (and quickly making you forget she's too young for the role), Michael Quadrozzi as the loyal and enamored Brian, and Nadia Franzen as the ambitious and hard-working Cassie.

Lydia (Grace Klapak) and her "dear Wickham" (Felipe Escudero)
(with Michael Quadrozzi and Nadia Franzen, photo by Molly Weibel)
Greg Vanselow's set is almost a character in itself, creating a warm inviting place (with biscuits!) where the whole household wants to gather. It's dominated by a massive brick fireplace reaching to the ceiling, along with support beams that really make it feel like we're in a basement. A large wooden table and various cooking utensils fill the space, and the hallway behind allows us to watch what else is going on outside the main action of the scene, with a stairway leading to the unseen "upstairs" world of Pemberley. Characters are dressed in period appropriate clothing, more subdued and conservative for the downstairs, more lush and colorful upstairs. Elizabeth and Lydia in particular have an endless array of gorgeous empire waist dresses and coats and nightgowns (costume design by Christy Branham and Jessica Moore).

The play includes music, with an unnamed and uncredited fiddler wandering through scenes and providing music in between scenes, occasionally joined by Eva Gemlo on cello. The entire cast joins in on a rousing singalong of traditional carols sung in a modern way, both post intermission and at the end of the play. The latter works better; it's a little jarring to see the family laughing and singing with Wickham just after his dramatic and traumatic reveal at the end of Act I. But the songs are fun and festive, with Nadia Franzen (Cassie) also playing the role of Music Director.

As I've written in the past, I want to return to the world of Christmas at Pemberley every year. I want to live inside this world, with its smart and witty dialogue, charming accents, beautiful gowns, sweet love stories, and strong female characters who support each other. It's the best of Jane Austen and the best of modern female-centered storytelling. Thanks to Lyric Arts for inviting us back to Pemberley once again. Here's hoping they continue the tradition for years to come. 

See The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley at Lyric Arts in Anoka through December 22. And for more Jane Austen, check out All About Jane: The Eras of Austen at Hive Collaborative (in the space formerly known as Dreamland Arts) - a song cycle featuring Jane Austen's heroines.

*Read about all of the holiday shows I've seen this year here, and listen to the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers' holiday preview episode of our podcast Twin Cities Theater Chat here

**Plot summary borrowed from my review of the Jungle's 2018 production.