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A cozy evening by the fire at Pemberley

As a lifelong, passionate reader of Jane Austen, I’ve mostly avoided any kind of sequel or adaptation of her work. I’ve not been tempted to speculate on what happens after one of her novels has ended, I don’t believe that anyone can match Austen’s writing, and honestly, just the thought of a movie called ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ makes my hair stand on end. So I was feeling more than a little ambivalent when I entered Spreckels Theatre to see the Pride and Prejudice sequel, ‘The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley.’ But I needn’t have worried; the evening was delightful.

‘The Wickhams’ is the second in the ‘Christmas at Pemberley’ trilogy by playwright Lauren Gunderson. In the first play, (‘Miss Bennet,’ staged by Spreckels in 2019), members of the Bennet family gather to celebrate Christmas at the ancestral home of Mr and Mrs Darcy. In a manner inevitably reminiscent of Downton Abbey, the events of the second play take place at the same time as the first, but ‘downstairs,’ where the world is ruled by Mrs Reynolds, longtime housekeeper at Pemberley. As the play opens, the staff – Reynolds, footman Brian and new maid Cassie - are preparing for the arrival of the Bennet family upstairs.

One person who is not invited for Christmas is erstwhile Lydia Bennet’s husband, scoundrel George Wickham who eloped with her and is persona non grata at what was once his childhood home as the son of Pemberley’s steward. But Wickham has his own reasons for coming back to Pemberley – and if he’s not welcome through the front door, he’s more than happy to sneak in the back to find Mrs Reynolds, who still has a soft spot for him. Since she is reluctant to throw him out, keeping Wickham away from the Darcys, both of whom are in the habit of visiting ‘downstairs,’ and from Lydia who has no idea of how her husband was once induced by Mr Darcy to marry her, quickly becomes a matter of some urgency for the staff. What befalls Wickham - and whether footman will win fair maid – form the basis of this amusing, gentle comedy.

From the moment of entering the smaller Spreckels theatre, the cozy fire burning in the kitchen fireplace on stage was so welcoming, I had to fight the impulse to go and warm my hands in front of it. Fortunately, the handsome set, designed by Elizabeth Bazzano, was soon bustling with the comings and goings of a very good cast, all of whom brought their characters fully to life. Mrs Reynolds, played beautifully by Sheila Lichirie, is a mixture of wise sayings, Scottish sternness and soft-heartedness; Sam Coughlin‘s Wickham is true to the novel as both a heartless cad and a seductive charmer; while Kimberley Cohan’s Lydia is entirely believable as a formerly pert, spoiled girl now grown just a little older and wiser as she teeters on the edge of disillusionment after two years of living with Wickham.

Allie Nordby is a merry Lizzy whose edges have been softened by happiness, while Byron Guo reveals both the original haughtiness for which Darcy was once famous and a deliciously playful, flirtatious side that Lizzy has clearly managed to bring out in him. Silas Vaughn as Brian and Dale Leonheart as Cassie give well-grounded performances as the earnest footman and the opinionated but good-hearted maid, and their quick exchanges and obvious chemistry provide much of the play’s comedy. Director Emily Cornelius keeps the action going nicely with swirls of movement around the stage, and costume designer Donnie Frank has clothed all the characters in detailed period costumes that look good right down to the aprons and cravats.

It certainly helps with this play if you are familiar with Pride and Prejudice, but it’s not essential, nor do you need to have seen the first in the trilogy (although after you’ve seen this one, you may be tempted to catch the other two). And yes, there are undoubtedly plot elements that Jane Austen would raise both eyebrows at, and a mild silliness that is several steps removed from her acerbic wit and acute observations of the snobberies and affectations of society. But ‘The Wickhams’ is an entertaining piece in its own right and provides an evening of warmth and merriness. In fact, so much so in this likeable production, that even an Austen aficionado like me managed to leave my pride and prejudice at the door.

‘The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley’ plays at Spreckels Theatre, Rohnert Park until December 12. Running time is approximately 2 hours with one intermission. Show times and tickets at

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