A delicious bonbon of a play, “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley,” should come in a box wrapped in a bow with a holiday card on top.
If you asked the characters in the play what they hoped would be inside, instead of bonbons they’d say cookies, or rather, in British parlance, biscuits.
The homemade biscuits are so good, in fact, that they provide a perfect excuse for the high-society folk of this contemporary sequel to Jane Austen’s classic “Pride and Prejudice” to sneak down to the kitchen, where they pick at the food and alternately please and annoy the staff in a take on the tried-and-true Upstairs/Downstairs motif. It nearly always works and it certainly works here.
Written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, “The Wickhams” is a follow-up to their enormously successful play “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” which — serving as an adult-oriented but inoffensive alternative to “A Christmas Carol” — has become one of the most produced plays in the country. Like “Miss Bennet,” this play gets its world premiere at Northlight.
The writers have hit on a great formula: examine the under-examined sisters of Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy (Netta Walker), the deservedly beloved heroine of Austen’s original 1813 novel, who managed both to find ideal love and marry into great wealth at the same time, and who now invites — or perhaps tolerates — her family to join her for Christmas at her enormous estate.
“Miss Bennet” resolved the single-dom of one younger sister, the bookish Mary. In “The Wickhams,” Gunderson and Melcon place their focus on naïve Lydia (Jennifer Latimore), whose problem is not single-dom but marriage. She fell for the dashing scoundrel Mr. Wickham, who grew up as the son of the steward at Pemberley, like a brother to Mr. Darcy (Luigi Sottile) until Wickham betrayed him. No longer welcome at Pemberley, Wickham (Will Mobley) crashes the party anyway, where the servants attempt, unsuccessfully of course, to keep him from spreading his specific brand of scandalous chaos.
Directed by Jessica Thebus, the production boasts some magnificent acting without a weak link in the ensemble, and the design work is so ideal that it also mostly disappears, which means that it’s focusing our attention on the action of the play itself.
As Lydia, Latimore shows us a girl starting to shed her naivete and face her predicament. Mobley, as Wickham, takes advantage of this showy part and ably provides both a good share of the comedy and all of the menace in a decidedly un-menacing work.
The downstairs environment allows the welcome invention of very different, new characters, who are both ridiculously over-idealized and thoroughly likeable. And the most likeable of all is the do-it-all Mrs. Reynolds, played with precise perfection by Penny Slusher, who makes this character fully believable both as a tough boss and a caring mother figure.
The other, younger servant characters serve as the romantic comedy leads in what is, after all, the genre that Austen helped to invent. Brian (Jayson Lee), a creative young man who keeps inventing things Mrs. Reynolds doesn’t want, grew up on the estate, while Cassie (Aurora Real De Asua) is joining the staff for the first time, trying to prove herself during the ultra-busy holiday season. In the course of the two hours, Cassie trains Brian in how to really treat a woman he likes, which involves proving his ability to listen.
A recent DePaul grad, Lee delivers a skillful turn, bringing just the right subtlety. And Real De Asua takes full command of her scenes as a character so wise beyond her years that at one point, after she gives advice to Lydia, Slusher does a wonderful double-take. After “The Wolves” at the Goodman and “Pipeline” at Victory Gardens, Real De Asua is stringing together a series of impressive performances.
The one thing this play could use is higher stakes. It all gets resolved a bit too easily. Gunderson and Melcon don’t give us enough opportunity to see the side of Wickham that Lydia fell for, his ability to appear the perfect romantic hero until someone actually gets to know him. The idea here, I think, is that he’s already known, but for the uninitiated he likely just seems a fool, which makes him less of a threat. And that means that neither his re-wooing of Lydia nor her pain at discovering the full truth feels very dramatic.
Still, “Miss Bennet” obviously left audiences wanting more and “The Wickhams” does, too. Good thing there are still two more Bennett sisters to explore.
Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.