Northlight's 'The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley' a true gift for Jane Austen fans
"The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley" --
Jane Austen fans have cause for celebration this season. And it comes courtesy of Northlight Theatre, whose premiere of "The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley" is a pleasant alternative to the misers and nutcrackers dominating area stages this time of year.
A sequel to "Pride and Prejudice," Austen's 1813 tale of romantic and familial love, "The Wickhams" by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon is the second in a proposed trilogy chronicling the Bennet sisters' post-novel lives.
The first, "Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley," premiered at Northlight in 2016. Picking up two years after the novel ends, it centered on studious, middle sister Mary Bennet and her budding romance with a bookish young man she meets at Pemberley, where quick-witted sister Elizabeth resides with her wealthy husband, Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Gunderson and Melcon's second installment, "The Wickhams," unfolds concurrently with "Miss Bennet." However, the action takes place "below stairs" in the servants' quarters (handsomely designed by William Boles).
The servants' holiday preparations are interrupted by the unwelcome arrival of the scoundrel George Wickham (Will Mobley), a steward's son and former friend of Darcy who is married to the young and silly Lydia Bennet (Jennifer Latimore).
Two years earlier, after the disreputable Wickham ran off with Lydia, Darcy (Luigi Sottile) forced the couple to marry to preserve the Bennet family's reputation. Since then, Wickham has been persona non grata at Pemberley. Still, he shows up anyway and proceeds to wreak havoc that Elizabeth (Netta Walker), housekeeper Mrs. Reynolds (Penny Slusher), footman Brian (Jayson Lee) and housemaid Cassie (Aurora Real de Asua) try in vain to contain.
Directed by Jessica Thebus, "The Wickhams" is an enjoyable, solidly acted diversion accessible to Austenophiles and non-Austenophiles alike. To that end, Gunderson and Melcon include enough "Pride and Prejudice" back story for those unfamiliar with the novel to follow what is essentially a testament to female empowerment at a time when women were mostly powerless.
Walker's judicious Elizabeth embodies this ideal. So does her downstairs counterpart Cassie, a feisty proto-feminist resolutely played by Real de Asua, whose solidarity with Latimore's increasingly aware Lydia becomes evident in a brief scene where their characters' shared silence resonates more than any dialogue.
Besides burgeoning feminism, "The Wickhams" also reflects on various stages of romance and touches on class and privilege, but not enough to detract from what is basically a lighthearted comedy. And the laughs come mostly from Mobley's thoroughly engaging, scene-stealing turn as Wickham.
Also deserving mention is Slusher's affably demanding Mrs. Reynolds and Lee's endearing inventor Brian, whose homemade gadgets hint at a career other than domestic service.
Although considering the mostly merry goings-on at Pemberley, it might not be a bad place to work.
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Location: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, (847) 673-6300 or northlight.org
Showtimes: 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 15. Also 7:30 p.m. Nov. 26 and 7 p.m. Dec. 1. No 7:30 p.m. show Nov. 28.
Running time: About 2 hours, with intermission
Parking: Free lot and parking garage
Rating: For most audiences