Where: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts,
9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
When: through Dec. 22
By ANNE SPISELMAN
The world premiere of “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” at Northlight Theatre could be subtitled “Lydia finds her inner feminist.”
Building on the success of the premiere of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” their first sequel to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” a few years ago, playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon have crafted the second in a planned trilogy of plays set at the grand estate of Fitzwilliam Darcy and his beloved wife Elizabeth “Lizzie” Darcy (née Bennet).
The action is meant to coincide with that in “Miss Bennet,” set roughly two years after the end of “Pride and Prejudice,” only this time everything happens “downstairs” in the vast kitchen’s common room where the servants meet and eat. We hear about the family gathering upstairs for the holidays, but the only members we see are Darcy (Luigi Sottile), Lizzie (Netta Walker), and her youngest sister Lydia Wickham (Jennifer Latimore, reprising her role from the previous play) as they pop downstairs to confer with the staff or purloin some biscuits (cookies) topped with orange peel.
Instead, we’re introduced to a trio of servants, starting with the exacting but kind-hearted housekeeper Mrs. Reynolds (letter-perfect Penny Slusher). Under her are the footman Brian (Jayson Lee), a talented young man born on the estate who loves to invent things for which Mrs. Reynolds has no use, and Cassie (Aurora Real de Asua), a girl from the village who has been hired as a housemaid for the holidays and would like to secure a permanent position.
A halting romance between Brian and Cassie is the principal subplot, designed mainly to demonstrate that strong-minded Cassie is determined to make her own way in the world. She also teaches Brian the key to a woman’s heart: learn to listen.
While “Miss Bennet” focused on bookish middle sister Mary finding romance, this play revolves around Lydia’s marriage problems. She adores and misses her absent husband George Wickham (Will Mobley), but he’s banned from the estate by Fitzwilliam for his scandalous past behavior.
Naturally. Wickham shows up drunk and disorderly, banged up from a fight and bellowing to see his wife. He resents being barred from Pemberley where he was born, the son of Fitzwilliam’s father’s steward, and he’s convinced he’s been deprived of privileges due him. He’s also deeply in debt and a notorious womanizer.
Although a familiarity with “Pride and Prejudice” deepens one’s understanding of Wickham’s character, it’s easy to see that he’s a rotter intent on exploiting anyone he can—Mrs. Reynolds has a soft spot for him—and if his past transgressions aren’t enough, a letter accidentally found in his pocket details his current perfidy. What isn’t as evident in Mobley’s otherwise spot-on performance is the immense charm that made Lydia fall for him in the first place.
The transformation here, though, is that Lydia, frivolous and self-absorbed through much of the evening, matures rather suddenly and comes to see Wickham for the cad he is. She does this, perhaps rather improbably for 1815, with advice from the independent Cassie. Arguably more plausible, if less satisfying, is her final generous gesture towards her soon-to-be ex husband.
Witty as it is at times, “The Wickhams” depends for its effect on withholding information that’s totally obvious to the audience. The first instance occurs when the disheveled Wickham bursts on the scene: We’re not told who his is but can easily figure out, just as we know Darcy and Lydia will discover he’s there despite efforts to keep them from doing so. A similar manipulation concerns the letter: The contents remain a secret as it is shown to one person after another, until it’s finally read aloud after a long delay—long after we guess what it is going to say.
Thanks to Jessica Thebus’ lively direction and fine acting all-around, the script’s shortcomings fade into the background. Chiefly, the story takes a long time to get rolling, so we feel a little like the title characters in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” offstage with nothing to watch.
On the other hand, Austen fans should be happy, as should devotées of programs like “Downton Abbey.” The technical elements, such as Izumi Inaba’s costumes, even are almost up to snuff. However, I’m still pondering an incongruity: Scenic designer William Boles’ impressive set of the common room is desperately in need of a paint job (look at the furniture and door trim) and cleaning (look at the walls), which seems out of keeping for a rich man’s great estate.