In commercializing Jane Austen’s enduring appeal, playwrights Margot Melcon and Lauren Gunderson have found a surefire formula for feel-good, oft-produced holiday hits. Like 2016’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley checks all the right box-office boxes: clever dialogue that (sort of) gives women a voice, but without diminishing their ladylike demeanor, humor that gently addresses social justice issues without ever threatening the status quo, and—of course—the marquee value of the Austen name.
Directed by Jessica Thebus and featuring a faultless cast, Northlight’s production follows Austen’s beloved Bennet sisters through a Downton Abbey-worthy holiday crisis—by which I mean a “crisis” that everyone knows from the start will end in sugarplums (orange cookies and raisin pudding in this case). The treacle picks up two years after Austen’s Pride and Prejudice ends, and follows the fate of Lydia Wickham, nee Bennet (Jennifer Latimore). When Lydia’s adulterous husband, George (Will Mobley), crashes the Pemberley party, the festivities become a farcical series of misadventures. Overseeing all is the true heart of the household, housekeeper Mrs. Reynolds (Penny Slusher)
The cast is grand. The script creaks with contrivance and artifice. Lydia’s sister Elizabeth Darcy (Netta Walker) contacts an officer in George’s distant army regiment and receives a lengthy, plot-resolving missive within roughly 48 hours. It’s a horse-and-carriage-era problem, resolved at the speed of e-mail. Moreover, while George is the ostensible villain, Darcy (Luigi Sottile) is the kind of privileged jerk who insists his servants are “family” even though he treats them like servants. That’s a problem never resolved here. But Melcon and Gunderson are going for sparkle, not veracity. In that, they succeed. v