The Wickhams: Wicked Good
Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s (MRT) production of “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” has occasioned a visit from select residents of Jane Austen’s classic novel “Pride and Prejudice,” along with three unforgettable new characters.
Last year, in “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” playgoers witnessed drama and hijinks at Pemberley estate’s upstairs. It was the bestselling show in MRT’s 40 years. This year, Miss Bennet playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon bring us a new perspective: that of the servants who, from their downstairs quarters, are the hidden operators who make the holiday celebrations happen. Austen obscured the existence of such servants in her novel, so their inclusion in “The Wickhams” adds new complexity and depth to a fictional world beloved by many.
Contemporaneous with the events of “Miss Bennet,” “The Wickhams” serves as a “Pride and Prejudice” sequel. It picks up two years after the novel’s end, in which readers saw three of the five Bennet sisters married. Alexis Bronkovic reprises her role as Elizabeth Darcy, who, alongside her husband, Fitzwilliam Darcy (Lewis D. Wheeler), awaits the arrival of her lovably over-the-top younger sister Lydia Wickham (Katie Grindeland, returning) and other family members who will remain out of view in Upstairs World.
New to the Austen universe are Pemberley’s dedicated housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds (Laura Latreille), Brian (Paul Melendy), a footman with a passion for inventing, and Cassie (Philana Mia), the new housemaid who longs for something a little better than the orphan’s life she’s known. Through the private conversations of Cassie and Brian, we get to know them in a way that allows their spirits and aspirations to stand out in an already vibrant setting.
While Cassie and Brian each exhibit a historically accurate tendency to respect the boundaries of their stations, neither lets this hold them back when the time comes to stand up for their convictions. Both speak sincerely and meaningfully on what matter most to them, whether it’s ethics, or books and tea.
Their immediate superior, Mrs. Reynolds (Latreille), never misses a beat of Pemberley’s heart, and is frequently after the two younger staff members to get things done just right. While Mrs. Reynolds is played as severe, her deep bond to Pemberley and its residents shines through, and her tough exterior means the brief smiles and moments of vulnerability are well-earned.
Wheeler and Bronkovic as Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, despite their posh accents, are no stereotypes of the uncaring master and mistress. Mrs. Darcy comes through with authentic warmth in her gratitude and respect, and Mr. Darcy, while steelier, is there with considerate affirmations. He is also capable of righteous indignation, exhibited when Lydia’s husband, the booming-voiced George Wickham (Ed Hoopman), arrives at the servants’ entrance while Lydia is missing him upstairs, resenting her family’s rejection of him..
Much moral reckoning ensues. Lydia’s manic dialogue careens from high to low — a comedic delight that also accentuates the play’s serious undertones.
At one particular showing (I won’t tell which one), one particular actor (I won’t tell which one), fell against a wall at such an appropriate moment of excitement that it almost seemed deliberate. We were advised later, during the applause, “Don’t fall into any walls!” Even without such unexpected moments, you will find more than enough magic at Pemberley this year.