Jane Austen’s characters often seem to be looking for security: a loving marriage, a sustainable income, a comfortable home. The genius of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, in exploring Austen’s world, is to explicitly articulate what the books more elliptically imply: For these 19th-century women, beyond that security lay the more fundamental dream of liberty.
Gunderson, one of the country's most popular playwrights, previously partnered with Melcon onMiss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. That 2016 Pride and Prejudice sequel centered on Mary, the bookish Bennet sister, who finally got all the good lines...and, yes, found love. After last year’s rapturously received production of that play, the Jungle Theater has co-commissioned what director Christina Baldwin calls a “side-quel.”
The Wickhams takes place simultaneously with Miss Bennet, on a lower level of the vast mansion where Elizabeth (Sun Mee Chomet, one of three returning Miss Bennet cast members) has settled down in wedded bliss with Mr. Darcy (James Rodríguez). That puts us in the servants’ kitchen (expansively rendered by set designer Chelsea M. Warren), where we meet three members of the Pemberley staff and explore the marriage of the loquacious Lydia Wickham, née Bennett (Kelsey Didion).
The infamous George Wickham (Nate Cheeseman) is unseen in Miss Bennet, and in The Wickhams we learn why. He hopes that housekeeper Mrs. Reynolds (a priceless Angela Timberman), who was fond of him as a boy, will help him reconcile with his nemesis Darcy. Servants Brian (Jesse LaVercombe) and the newly hired Cassie (Roshni Desai) are skeptical, despite Wickham’s rakish charm.
This is a darker story than Miss Bennet, to the point where its feel-good ending seems almost forced. Lydia has to confront some uncomfortable facts about her husband, while Wickham’s abuses illustrate the implications of a rigid gender hierarchy that still holds much force today. (The boozy, indignant Wickham strongly evokes a certain recently-seated U.S. Supreme Court justice.)
Even so, there’s plenty of joy to be had in this Georgian world. Melcon and Gunderson have a knack for zesty dialogue, but just as important is the room they leave for telling moments that fill their frames. Like Miss Bennet, The Wickhams gallops along at the fast pace of a big family gathering while carefully preserving the hesitations, the reverses, and the silences that sometimes say more than words.
This is world-class theatrical art, exceptional for the warmth of its execution and the breadth of its ambition—even if it falls short of what it could have been. The split focus between the gentry and their servants yields insights, but also prevents any individual character from being developed as thoroughly as Mary was in Miss Bennet. Gestures at heretofore unknown complexities in Wickham’s character, and critiques of the household’s class dynamic, are largely abandoned for a conclusion that leaves us still feeling warm and fuzzy about this legendary literary family. It is, after all, Christmas.
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