‘The Wickhams’: Austen’s characters enchant again

Paul Melendy, Philana Mia,Katie Grindeland, Alexis Bronkovic, Lewis D. Wheeler, Laura Latreille in “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley.” Photo by Meghan Moore

LOWELL  — They’re back.

Who? Jane Austen’s iconic characters from “Pride and Prejudice” are back in Lowell for the holidays in the person of “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley,” the companion piece by playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon  to last season’s smash-hit “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.”

“The Wickhams” is an utterly charming, fun-filled look at what was happening downstairs in the  common room of Pemberley during the same three days around Christmas that “Miss Bennet” covered upstairs. In its construction, it bears some resemblance to the BBC series “Upstairs, Downstairs” which concerned both the upstairs family and downstairs servants in a home in Edwardian London.

It’s tricky business reconciling with what we learned last year was going on upstairs, with what we didn’t know was going on downstairs, and fitting the pieces of the puzzle together exactly. Gunderson and Melcon challenged each other and emerged triumphant from the task.

The duo projected Austen’s characters forward in writing “Miss Bennet” and the characters emerged with their personas, wit and charm intact.

There have been a few cast changes and the addition of other characters, but the result is, once again, great comedic fun set against the gentility of the Georgian era.

Philana Mia and Katie Grindeland. Photo by Meghan Moore.

It is 1815, and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Lewis D. Wheeler) is the master of Pemberley, along with his wife Elizabeth ( Alexis Bronkovic), both of whom we met in “Miss Bennet.” We also met Lydia Wickham (Katie Grindeland), the desperately unhappy wife of George Wickham (Ed Hoopman).

 “Miss Bennet” centered around unmarried bookish Mary, and also featured Jane, Elizabeth, and Lydia. Melcon recently revealed that Part III of the trilogy will feature the so-far unseen Bennet sister Kitty (Catherine Bennet) and Darcy’s younger sister, Georgianna.

In “The Wickhams,” the estimable Laura Latreille is Mrs. Reynolds, the no-nonsense, ruthlessly efficient housekeeper charged with keeping Pemberley running smoothly despite the onslaught of holiday guests upstairs. If you were to see more than a small resemblance to Mrs. Hughes from “Downtown Abbey,” well, that’s on you.

Paul Melendy, a gifted comic actor, is Brian, the footman who longs to be something more but struggles to break out of his place in the rigid societal structure and move upward, almost unheard of at the time. He has demonstrated a talent for inventing useful tools and gadgets, most notably the tool  that allows multiple biscuits to be made at once, most useful as the biscuit burglars invade from upstairs.  

There has been a new hire in the household housemaid named Cassie (Philana Mia) but what has amounts to her dream job and doesn’t want anyone – including Brian, whim she is already acquainted with – to screw things up.

And Mrs. Reynolds is hyper-aware of how the new girl in town has the potential to upset the delicate dynamics of the downstairs operation.

Ed Hoopman and Laura Latrielle. Photo by Meghan Moore

Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy are in and out of the downstairs common room, tending to details of dinner, visitors accommodations, etc.  

Every family has someone that everyone prays doesn’t show up on the holiday – and they always do. In this case, the skunk at the picnic is George Wickham, Lydia’s n’er-do-well husband, who shows up late at night both drunk and beaten up.

Against her better judgment, Mrs. Reynolds – who has a soft spot in her heart for George, who grew up at Pemberley without the advantages of Darcy– allows him to stay in the servants’ quarters despite Mr. Darcy having expressly barred him from the estate.

Geoege’s roguish charm won’t work on Carrie, but his mere attention to her sends Brian into a talespin.

There is  delicious verbal swordplay between  Wheeler’s Darcy and Hoopman’s George in which many years of grievances are spilled.

Things will come to a head when the contents of a letter found in George’s jacket are revealed.

Lydia is faced with a wrenching decision: Forgive the unforgiveable and go off to Paris with a man she still loves, or cut her losses, and bear the disgrace of being an 18-year-old divorcee

Austen, of course, had few equals when it came to exploring the dynamics of relationships with wit and style and Gunderson and Melcon have carried the torch forward, and will probably do so again in the third part of the trilogy.

Last year’s “Miss Bennet” boasted strong production values, and Director Shana Gozansky’s design team has also fashioned a handsome production.  Apollo Mark Weaver creates an expansive, detailed common room where servants work and eat and where everyone in “The Wickhams” will be seen sooner or later.

The costumes include Brian’s handsome footman uniform, the workaday outfits for the female servants, lovely gowns worn by Lydia and Lizzie, and the formal wear of Fitzwilliam Darcy. David Remedios’ sound design sets a sprightly holiday tone.

There are a couple of delicious plot twists that Gunderson and Melcon save to send out you onto East Merrimack Street in Lowell in a bright holiday mood.

The Bennet sisters certainly do make Christmas rather exciting and memorable. Do they do Thanksgiving or Easter?

The Merrimack Repertory Theatre production of “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley.” By Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon. Directed by Shana Gozansky. . Set design by Apollo Mark Weaver. Costume design by Miranda Kau Giurleo. Lighting design by Brian J. Lilienthal. Sound design by David Remedios. Through Dec. 22. Mrt.org.