Playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon are on a mission to expand the stories of “the other” Bennet sisters who they feel were never fully understood in Jane Austen’s iconic novel “Pride and Prejudice.” Along the way, they’re also creating a trilogy that is on its way to becoming a new holiday tradition.
In 2016, the first play of the impending trilogy, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” was a delightful holiday treat at Northlight Theatre. It expanded the story of bookish, opinionated Mary Bennet, whose future looks dim in the eyes of her seemingly more accomplished siblings, Elizabeth and Jane. However, Gunderson and Melcon portrayed Mary as bright and accomplished with a bit of a feminist bent.
Now for the second installment, “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley,” the writing team turns to Lydia Bennet, the wild, impulsive sister who, in the novel, is embroiled in a scandal and ends up married to the ne’er-do-well George Wickham.
“You feel it’s entirely Lydia’s fault that she ended up married to this wretched man,” Melcon says. “At the end of the novel, it’s like she got the short end of the stick. So we decided to figure out what it would look like to solve that.”
Adds Gunderson: “I think Lydia’s story actually speaks a lot about where we are now because there’s so many ways to write her off, and we are at a point where no woman should be written off. As the most tedious and dramatic of the sisters, it doesn’t mean we give up on her.”
“The Wickhams,” which makes its world premiere at Northlight under the direction of Jessica Thebus, takes place at the same time as its predecessor, “Miss Bennet.” As the Darcys and Bennets celebrate upstairs, the servants downstairs are embroiled in a scandal as Mr. Wickham arrives and they must keep the holiday celebration running smoothly.
The cast includes the upstairs family — Jennifer Latimore (Lydia Wickham), Luigi Sottile (Fitzwilliam Darcy) and Netta Walker (Elizabeth Darcy) — and the downstairs staff — Penny Slusher (housekeeper Mrs. Reynolds), Jayson Lee (footman Brian) and Aurora Real De Asua (housemaid Cassie).
Readers of “Pride and Prejudice” will recall that Wickham (portrayed here by Will Mobley) grew up on the Darcy estate as the son of the steward. He was in a position to have an almost brotherly relationship with Darcy until their falling out.
“We realized that we had this great opportunity to explore a different kind of family set-up with the downstairs world of Pemberley,” Melcon says. “And George Wickham was a part of that family. Our goal was to create a sense of how the two worlds of the household interact and combine together.”
Figuring out how to make the storylines of the two plays more or less sync was a challenge, says Melcon.
“Part of the engineering of it was trying to know how much of the world from ‘Miss Bennet’ could be allowed to trickle downstairs and influence the action,” Melcon says. “We wanted the two plays to be in conversation with each other but also to be stand alone pieces. You don’t have to have see the first to understand what’s going on in the second but if you have there are all these nuggets and Easter eggs that you’ll pick up on.”
“Miss Bennet” was one of the most produced plays last year, and a true sign of its lasting success is that theaters around the country are now doing second productions of it. That enthusiasm from both theaters and audiences encouraged the playwrights to expand what began as a one-off collaboration into an unexpected trilogy. Gunderson and Melcon are in the early stages of knocking around ideas for a third play.
“I think the plays are about real things, about things men and women and audiences of all ages can take something from and find a lot that’s funny, a lot that real and a lot that’s challenging,” says Gunderson. “The sisters are so interesting and unique. There’s just so much more story to tell and we want to dig deeper into that.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.