11/30/2019           THE WICKHAMS:   CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLY                 Theatrical Outfit

DOWNSTAIRS AT THE DARCY'S

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that theatre audiences at Christmastime, must be in want of an adaptation from a 19th-century favorite.

It is in this spirit that I plan to commence sharing my thoughts about Theatrical Outfit’s production of a SECOND Pride and Prejudice Christmas at Pemberly sequel, The Wickhams.  The play is a splendidly rapturous return to the characters and regency manners we have treasured ever since our days as a young college lady … um … that is to say, “gentleman.”  This marvelous play -- penned by ex-Atlantan Lauren Gunderson, in league with Margot Melcon, a San Franciscan (though we dare not judge her harshly for being that) -- is an Austenian exercise in Austenesque wit, shallow when viewed idly, yet still possessing a deceptively perceptive (dare I say “Austentive?”) insight into the trivialities that make us human, an insight not at all diminished by nearly two hundred years of history, cynicism, and senses skewed by the thoughtlessly concise nature of fiction and the even more thoughtless banalities of popular culture, a culture Ms. Austen’s very human characters would find as alien as we find hers recognizable.

 

To orient you, let me begin by stating that this play is set concurrently with the first sequel, Miss Bennet.  While the household upstairs is wallowing in the pleasures of a family Christmas (and Mary’s budding romance with

Arthur De Burgh), the staff downstairs, ruled with an iron will by that unwavering beacon of household stability and strength, Mrs. Reynolds, is struggling to maintain sanity (and polite composure) at this busiest time of year.  We only meet two of the staff, groomsman Brian and new maid Cassie, but the unseen multitudes of servants are as real as if countless Atlanta actors are just offstage waiting for their cues.  

 

Into this frenetic whirlwind of preparation and orange biscuits bursts the family villain, George Wickham, bruised and bleeding from a drunken encounter with the brother of a young lady he has {deleted by the Regency Spoiler Constabulary}.  When laundering his despoiled overcoat, maid Cassie comes across a letter that … well before I even commence my description, let me predict it too will be expurgated by those selfsame Regency Spoiler Gendarmes.

 

So, a number of questions quickly become self-evident.  Just why is Mrs. Reynolds so willing to give Wickham a “second chance?”  Just what is revealed in that McGuffin of a letter?  Is Wickham capable of reformation?  Is Lydia capable of serious thought?  Will the Master of the House discover the Wickham lurking in the servants’ quarters?   Will there be an epic “Battle of the Raisins?”  And just why was Lydia so eager to offer aid to the fecund Mrs. Bingley at the conclusion of Miss Bennet?

 

From such simple plot points will grow an engrossing, exciting, and satisfying spruce of a play, centered on the downstairs staff, brimming with 21st Century attitudes about marriage and romance and the point that makes any redemption not only unengaging, but virtually impossible.  It is festooned with all the ornamental language Miss Austen, Ms. Gunderson and Ms. Melcon can muster, glowing in the snowless-twilight of a Georgia winter like a beacon-star leading us wiser theatre-goers to another Christmas theatrical miracle.

To state that I loved this production and give it my highest recommendation is to overstate the obvious. To exemplify my reasons, I need to first point to the performances, all of which delight more than Mrs. Reynolds’ biscuits.   Let’s start with that selfsame Mrs. Reynolds herself, played to perfection by Ms. Deadra Moore.  Ms. Moore is a powerhouse of a presence, commanding when needed, submissive when necessary, exuding confidence when her social superiors are clearly in the wrong.   Ms. Lauren Boyd Land and Mr. Shaun MacLean are terrific as Cassie and Brian, childhood friends who may (or may not) be destined for romance.  For certain, that are competent enough, intelligent enough, ambitious enough to be destined for “greater things.” 

 

Mr. Daniel Parvis is a force of nature as Wickham.  Exuding charm by the barrelful, it is easy to see how he is able to win (and bask in) the favor of both Lydia and Mrs. Reynolds;  Mr. Parvis leaves us in doubt as to whether he is indeed as perfidious as his reputation suggests, making us believe he is actually on the road to redemption.  And when all is revealed, his characterization is complex enough to make us believe it, in spite of out better senses (and better angels).   Every bit his equal, Ms. Erika Miranda is wonderful as Lydia, relishing all the surface flightiness we’ve come to expect of the character, but revealing an iron-willed strength when it is most needed of her.  This script, more than any other, makes more of Lydia than Ms. Austen’s myriad fans and acolytes could ever hope to expect.  Finally, as the Darcy’s, Ms. Jasmine Thomas and Mr. Justin Walker are almost in the “background,” but they make their limited time on stage count, giving us a Darcy and an Elizabeth that are true to expectations, and complex enough to be more than mere supporting players.

 

Of course mention must be made of the physical production.  The set by Seamus Bourne is a work of grace and beauty, giving us a credible “Downstairs” space for Mrs. Reynolds to rule, with props by Nick Battaglia are (seemingly) true to period and character.  Special note must be made of the gewgaws invented by Brian (an amateur tinkerer and budding engineer);  note must also be made of the sturdy oak-esque tables constructed specifically for this space. 

 

Andre Allen’s lighting design is also remarkable, including an elegantly paced, subtle transition from afternoon to night that highlights the “preshow”;  every time we look up from our phones – I mean our programs – the appearance changes.  The costumes by Elizabeth Rasmussen are sturdy constructions of color and style that detail the period and exemplify each character’s station and class.

 

And, director Carolyn Cook, an apparently endless well of talent and invention, makes the story sing, makes the characters come alive, and makes the pace both energetic and unhurried – such an oxymoron should be impossible, but Ms. Cook makes it seem easy, inevitable, and elegant.

 

Apparently, there will be eventually be a third Christmas at Pemberly sequel.  I can only hope it is also concurrent with Miss Bennet and The Wickhams, so the stories can interlock as smoothly as does Alan Ayckbourne’s Norman Conquests trilogy, perhaps one day available for a full day’s repertory (or a six-hour video treatment). Although knowledge of Miss Bennet (or even Pride and Prejudice) are not essential to an enjoyment of The Wickhams, such knowledge will provide added pleasure, as we remember where these characters originated, and “what’s going on upstairs.”

 

It is with no small pride that I close by sharing that, despite my own prejudices toward Miss Austen’s work and the countless multitude of adaptations thereof, my final hope is that you, ever sensible to my warmest sentiments towards these artisans of the stage, will also sojourn in Austenshire and unite in my praise of the stay. 


     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #toWICKHAMS)

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