Those in search of some heartwarming fare this holiday season will find it at Spreckels, where “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” is scheduled to grace the intimate Condiotti Studio Theatre stage through December 12th. Second in a three-part series, “The Wickhams” is a sequel to Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice, though theatergoers need not have seen part one – nor have read the original novel – to understand and enjoy the show. Acclaimed duo Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon have penned a delightful and clever continuation to one of the literary world’s most famous love stories, brimming with enough wisdom, wit, and charm to have been written by Austen herself.
…I can’t think of a better way to start the holiday season.
As those who attended may fondly recall, Spreckels staged a memorably top-notch production of part one in the series, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” in November of 2019. “Miss Bennet” takes place on the ground floor of the Darcys’ estate, where the newlyweds are hosting the entire Bennet clan for Christmas festivities. In part two, however, we venture downstairs to see what’s happening in the servants’ quarters while the family gathering unfolds above. Amid the hustle and bustle of holiday preparations, the late-night arrival of an uninvited guest threatens to throw the household into chaos. Cue the comedic mishaps, delicious drama, and sweet romance in this uplifting tale of family and love, forgiveness and redemption.
Sheila Lichirie delivers a stellar performance as head housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, who is equal parts sharp-tongued censure and quick-witted wisdom, with just enough warmth peeking through the cracks in her all-business exterior. Sam Coughlin is equally exceptional as notorious scoundrel George Wickham, whose drunken stumbling and slick overtures to the new maid would be enough to make one’s skin crawl if he weren’t so hilarious and strangely charming. Coughlin has mastered the appropriate body language and facial expressions to really sell his character.
Though Lichirie and Coughlin are the standouts, their companions are excellent, too. Kimberley Cohan makes a wonderfully lively and sympathetic Lydia Wickham, whose naivety is more endearing than annoying. Dale Leonhart’s Cassie, the ambitious new housemaid, is deliciously sassy, spirited, whip-smart, and self-assured. Silas Vaughn is eager and earnest as love-struck footman Brian, and delivers an enjoyably energetic performance. Allie Nordby – who was phenomenal as eldest Bennet sister, Jane, in the 2019 production – brings an irresistible sweetness and sincerity to her character that makes her impossible not to love, though lacking in some of the headstrong passion and playfulness I secretly crave in an Elizabeth Darcy. Perhaps what’s missing is convincing chemistry with her beau.
Byron Guo’s Fitzwilliam Darcy is appropriately stately and reserved, but perhaps just a touch too stiff, with his arms often glued to his sides. He does some effective things with his intonation and facial expressions, but his scenes with Nordby feel somewhat forced, and I kept hoping to see him loosen up a bit. Mr. Darcy isn’t supposed to be overly effusive or unrestrained, of course, but part of his charm is the way he softens in Elizabeth’s presence. Guo is more convincing as a charitable host and consummate gentleman than a newlywed man in love, though a few more performances may help him ease into the role. Despite these minor criticisms, it’s clear this is a very talented ensemble, and the show is entirely diverting.
Director Emily Cornelius has paced the production beautifully. Laughs land where they should, there are no lulls in the action, and the sweeter, softer moments don’t feel rushed. The impact is greatly enhanced by Elizabeth Bazzano’s handsome set, tempting us to gather around the kitchen table to help with holiday preparations, or cozy up by the glowing fire. The build quality and attention to detail are impressive, with doors that open to a realistic looking room and hallway, and an abundance of props that make the space feel like a real home. Costume designer Donnie Frank deserves recognition, too, for aptly chosen attire and some seriously stunning pieces. (Where can I find Lydia’s fabulous evening dress and nightgown?)
Whether you’re an Austen fan or just a fan of good theater, be sure to catch “The Wickhams.” With a hearty dose of warmth and wit that’s sure to leave you in a brighter mood, I can’t think of a better way to start the holiday season.
Sr. Contributing Writer/Editor, AisleSeatReview.com
Member, American Theatre Critics Association
Member, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
Member, Marquee Theater Journalists Association
|Written by||Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon|
|Directed by||Emily Cornelius|
|Producing Company||Spreckels Performing Arts|
|Production Dates||Through December 12th, 2021|
|Production Address||Spreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
|Tickets||$12 - $26|
|Reviewer Score||Max in each category is 5/5|
|Aisle Seat Review Pick?||Yes!|