Ladies, slip into your gauzy Empire-waist gowns. Gentlemen, don your frock coats and high-collared shirts. Proceed post-haste in your barouche to Main Street Theater to re-live those bygone days of civilized social dysfunction, witty repartee, and biscuits with orange bits.
Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon's The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley (2018) is a warm and comfy immersion in Jane Austen, a sequel to their fantastically successful Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, which was itself a sequel to Austen's immortal novel Pride and Prejudice.
The new play is delightful, engrossing in a light entertaining way, and non-threatening in any way. It is what it is: a clever rehash of everything Austen and a winking nudge to the PBS crowd who can't get enough of Downton Abbey or the nostalgic ghosts of Upstairs Downstairs. Apparently, there are a lot of fans out there, for Main Street already has several sold-out performances. Like Miss Bennet, the run of The Wickhams has already been extended. It is easy to see why.
This time, Gunderson and Melcon place the Regency comedy of manners downstairs in the copper-potted roomy Pemberley kitchen, overseen by maternal Mrs. Patmore...I mean Mrs. Reynolds (Claire Hart-Palumbo.) In mob cap and brown satin ensemble, she is the heart of the play and master of the house, popping out boatloads of savory crackers, planning the holiday menu, and solving an assortment of personal problems both upstairs and down. She has a heart of gold and an iron will. If an ox ever got ill, she would probably hitch the plow to herself and finish the harrowing.
The authors throw a distaff net over the proceedings, which is a much more contemporary interpretation of Austen's original intentions. This #leanin underpinning adds a bit of friction to an era not renowned for female emancipation or empowerment. But it's a lovely fiction and easily preps us to embrace these lively characters in their struggle for personal independence.
In Gunderson and Melcon's recasting, the woman subtly hold the power. All they need do is realize it, then act on it. Cassie (rosy-cheeked Alyssa Marek, fresh and lovely) is the new hire as scullery maid. Poor and orphaned, she realizes that she may attain a foothold out of her situation by innate intelligence, sympathetic nature, and love of reading. Underneath, she's one tough cookie and, once the plot spins into overdrive, she holds her own against her “betters.” She has a prickly relationship with valet Brian (Nathan Wilson, deftly naive) who spends his time inventing kitchen gadgets and warding off her sharp barbs that usually leave him reeling. You know right off where their banter will lead.
Other women rule upstairs. Mistress of the house Elizabeth Darcy, née Bennet (Leslie Lenert), is independent, fiercely loyal to her family, and deeply in love with Darcy (picture-perfect Alan Brincks), who you may remember won her hand in the novel by shedding his noble “pride and prejudice.” Of course, Elizabeth had done the same when she dropped her prideful prejudice over his insufferable noblesse oblige. The other lady upstairs is self-dramatic Lydia Wickham (Skyler Sinclair in daffy comic mode). To the consternation of her family, she had run off with cad George Wickham and with a lot of behind-the-scenes pressure from Darcy, subsequently returned with a wedding ring. The family still does not approve.
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So the entire Bennet family is due at any moment, the downstairs crew is harried, the Christmas tree must be put up in the library, and the stage is neatly set for a series of intertwining misadventures, budding romance, and family secrets. The authors drop these nicely at the appropriate moments.
The entire affair gets a lot more interesting when bounder George (Blake Weir, all toxic bully) bursts into the kitchen bloodied and hell-bent on uniting with his wife. Well, if Darcy finds out who's below, all hell will break out, so George must be kept hidden until this mess can be settled. Weir's presence brings a needed twinge of danger into the play. The authors juggle the various balls with sweet agility (as does director Robin Robinson), if somewhat predictable fashion. There are secret letters found and read, a hasty offstage journey to London, a scandalous accusation, tea poured, a blow to the jaw, and plenty of raised eyebrows and indignant reactions.
Regency dash is aptly supplied by Donna Southern Schmidt's exquisite costumes (Lydia's flower-embroidered muslin shift is museum worthy), Janel J. Badrina's harpsichord and pipes sound design, Eric Marsh's downstairs lighting, Ryan McGettigan's well-appointed kitchen set, and those tins of cheese biscuits everyone nibbles on. Wish they had passed out samples. How savory.
The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley. Performances are scheduled through December 22 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; and 3 p.m. Sundays. Because of high demand with several performances already sold out, Main Street Theater has added performances on Sunday, December 8 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, December 14 at 3 p.m. (I'm certain more will follow.) Main Street Theater - Rice Village, 2540 Times Boulevard. For information call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $36-$55.