The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley
Lauren Gunderson & Margot Melcon
|Neiry Rojo & August Browning|
In late December 1815, two years have passed since four of the five sisters of the Longbourn estate traversed many complicated webs and winding routes to land husbands in Jane Austin’s much beloved Pride and Prejudice. Now as December arrives in 2018, two years have also passed since Marin Theatre Company joined in a three-theatre, rolling premiere of a Lauren Gunderson and Margo Melcon play that picks up and continues the original Jane Austin story (a new work that has been the most produced play in the U.S. for the past two years, including a much-loved production last year at San Jose’s City Lights Theater Company). Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley that made its MTC premiere in 2016 picks up Jane Austin’s original story and relates how the fifth sister -- a rather-odd-one-out, committed spinster Mary – surprises herself and all her family as she stumbles onto her one true love while the family convenes at Christmas at Pemberley, the ancestral estate of sister Elizabeth’s husband, Fitzwilliam Darcy.
The playwright team of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon has now returned to the same household and the same few days in December to tell the story again, this time relating what is going on in the basement where the servants of the household hold reign. Marin Theatre Company once again premieres a visit to Pemberley -- The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley – one that is likely to become just as popular on holiday stages across America as has its predecessor. Not only is this MTC premiere once again enchantingly captivating, often funny, and in the end heart-warming, the play is quite enlightening about the role of women in the early 1800s of England and the possibilities for self-empowerment even when most laws and customs of the land were stacked totally against them in favor of men -- especially husbands.
|Melissa Ortiz & Madeline Rouverol|
As the large family of tittering, bickering, and gossiping sisters and brothers-in-law arrives upstairs, three of the estates servants scurry below to shine silver, iron clothes, deliver sherry, and ensure the basket of biscuits (i.e., sugar cookies in the shape of stars) remains full. Those biscuits appear to be a key reason the estate’s couple, Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy, and one sister, Lydia Wickham, continue invading the large kitchen – as well as their searching a reprieve from all the hustle and bustle of invading relatives above. One thing that becomes quite clear: When the landed aristocrats arrive in the domain of head housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, they are no longer in territory that they totally control nor one where they will always have last say.
Jennie Brick is the formidable Mrs. Reynolds – formidable in size, in demeanor, and often in tongue. She is not past speaking defiantly in the face of the master of the house, Mr. Darcy; and she certainly is quick and prone to correct and command the other two servants, footman Brian and temporary help for the holidays, Cassie. Mrs. Reynolds is not in any way mean, but she is also not one with a ready smile. She does not take praise well (“Praise slows me down”), and she does not take well to any sort of change in the kitchen kingdom she controls. When inventive Brian presents a new cutting board he has created in order to shape multiple, star-shaped biscuits in one swoop out of dough, Mrs. Reynolds humphs, “I don’t want things that are done easily: I want things done well ... Invent on your own time.” Jennie Brick is scrumptiously delectable as the head cook, household manager, opinionated observer, and all-around ruler of the down-below (and maybe even the up-above).
Her charges include a well-spoken, quick-to-like Brian, whose proper posture and English as well as curiosity and creativity immediately seem more than one might expect from the household’s footman and all-around servant. August Browning’s Brian has very exacting ways of speaking and very endearing ways of conversing with whomever wanders into the kitchen. He particularly perks up whenever the newly arrived Cassie is in the room -- a girl he has known since school days (and one who has more than once beat him in playground foot races). In his star-struck eyes and his attempts to engage in small talk with her, there is no doubt Brian has long-term dreams about his relationship with Cassie.
But Cassie has no time for Brian as she works diligently to make a good impression on the always-watching Mrs. Reynolds in hopes of acquiring a permanent position in the household. As Cassie, Neiry Rojo exudes a strong-willed confidence of who she is and what she wants in life – and that does not seem to include a husband (which in 1815 England would mean giving away all her rights of property, decision, and future course). Cassie makes it clear, “I want my own life ... It’s more precious that any man could offer me.” Cassie is a daring, young woman who does not hesitate to take a stand of firm integrity and opinion when needed – with Brian or even with one of her so-called betters from above. She also does not hesitate to declare with intended defiance that when accusations get made by others, “it is always the women that are blamed first.”
Down the stairs and into the dawn-to-midnight world of ever-increasing tasks and pressures that these three face as Christmas Day approaches come with much regularity the master and mistress of the household and one sister who feels particularly alienated from the rest of her family. Melissa Ortiz is Elizabeth (Lizzy) Darcy -- a quite gleeful, completely kind head mistress who pops in for quick chats, a few nicely asked commands, and of course, for biscuits. She is also bold in her new ideas, like introducing a tree into the household for Christmas – an idea she picked up from German tradition and one that the entire downstairs thinks is quite strange.
|David Everett Moore & Melissa Ortiz|
Her husband, Fitzwilliam (David Everett Moore), is stiffly formal, a bit standoffish, but also looking to escape all the sisters and hubbub of the above, asking sheepishly his wife, “Couldn’t I just hide down here until after the holiday?” Wanting also to hide also from the happy couples above is Lydia Wickham (Madeline Rouverol), a high-voiced, fast-talking (i.e., rarely speaks using any punctuation marks like periods) woman who is visiting without a husband because her husband, George, has been forever banned from the household by Darcy after he did “disgrace this house.”
But to the house in the middle of night does come a stumbling drunk, bruised and black-eyed, and totally disheveled George Wickham (a perfectly matched for the scoundrel’s role, Kenny Tull). A surprisingly sympathetic Mrs. Reynolds (who clearly once loved him much as she watched him grow up) allows him to stay but warns him to stay hidden in the basement -- neither to be seen by his wife (who continually pines away for her absent husband whom she has not seen in some weeks/months) nor certainly by Mr. Darcy.
|Kenny Toll & Jennie Brick|
The appearance of the wandering prodigal – whom we soon learn has no livelihood, is a womanizer, and yet can be quite charming in his own rough way – ignites a series of unfolding discoveries that transform the basement’s kitchen into a beehive of angry accusations and shout-filled confrontations. All starts with Cassie’s discovering a letter in George’s muddy coat as she washes it. The gasps of surprise, disgust, horror, and even delight the note elicits (according to who happens subsequently to be reading it) sets up a flurry of activities that the celebrating family members above have no idea are occurring.
As events unfold from Christmas Eve through Christmas Day and into Boxing Day, we witness heretofore hidden, powerful aspects of Elizabeth, Mrs. Reynolds, and eventually even Lydia emerge. We see a Cassie who remains true to her posture of high integrity and her firm ambition to better herself in her own independent way; but we also see her new lighten up her whole countenance with ah-ha’s about what life might offer for a future that she had once rejected. Out of a family crisis that never reaches the upstairs celebrations emerges personal transformations and new opportunities for happiness for all those who live in and venture in the house’s below – save the wily and truly wicked George. For those in the “down-under,” Christmas goes from bleak to blessed, largely due to feminine courage, initiation, and cultural boundary-busting.
Megan Sandberg-Zakian directs with a pace of both alacrity and occasional, welcome pauses the whirl of downstairs events, never leaving us breathless but always keeping our undivided attention and desire to see what happens next. Wilson Chin has created a massive underground world of a plain-walled but stately kitchen that is its own bounded territory, separated from the glittering festivities above by a fortress-like, wooden staircase heading up and to the right. The set’s large, opaque windows clearly help us understand this domain’s inhabitants are separated in more ways that one from the outside world around them, with the excellent lighting schemes of Wen-Ling Liao adding to the atmosphere of shadows and diffused light that exist in the massive basement. Liam Roddisil and Rachel Hurado have populated the scene with dozens of properties that authenticate and give personality to the servant’s busy basement. Sharath Patel helps establish both the era and the season through her choice of music as sound designer while the costumes of Courtney Flores ice the cake in defining the upstairs/downstairs nature of the story as well as enhancing the various personalities, strengths, and faults of the characters we meet.
Both the writing team of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon and the cast and production team of Marin Theatre Company are on a roll. Just as Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley has proven to be a crowd pleaser, it is evident upon exiting this year’s The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley that this new work may well repeat that initial installment’s cross-country, repeated stagings in the next two years. After all, it would take a Scrooge not to walk out of The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley thoroughly pleased and ready to wish with big smiles everyone met, “Happy Holidays.”
Rating: 5 E
The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley continues in an extended run through December 16, 2018 at Marin Theatre Company, at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA. Tickets are available online at http://www.marintheatre.org or by calling the box office Tuesday – Sunday, 12 -5 p.m.
Photos by Kevin Berne