Cohort Report: Banish the Holiday Blues with The Wickhams

By Karla Sorenson
MRT Cohort 

It’s no secret, the holidays can be bittersweet. Channeling Ebenezer Scrooge, we wistfully retrace the shadows of things that have been, while stressing over Christmas present (and presents) and wondering which shadows shall remain unaltered by the future.

To relieve all that heaviness, one seeks the safety and warmth of the holiday show. Lighthearted and bighearted, they provide the salve of escapism that gets us through the season. 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘞𝘪𝘤𝘬𝘩𝘢𝘮𝘴: 𝘊𝘩𝘳𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘮𝘢𝘴 𝘢𝘵 𝘗𝘦𝘮𝘣𝘦𝘳𝘭𝘦𝘺 – a companion piece to last season’s 𝘔𝘪𝘴𝘴 𝘉𝘦𝘯𝘯𝘦𝘵 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre – exceeds on all measures. But leave it to MRT to throw in a few twists that distinguishes this holiday show from the average Hallmark special.

Uber playwright Lauren Gunderson along with co-writer Margo Malcolm have not just re-imagined the characters of Jane Austen, they have created their own world by adding a touch of “upstairs/downstairs.” The Darcy’s leisure class stands toe to toe with the vibrant men and women who inhabit the lower level of the Pemberley estate. These are the folks who do the hard work, not just physically but also intellectually, as it turns out. They also seem to have a lot of fun, judging by how often the upstairs folk gravitate downward. (Yes, there are a lot of metaphors in this play.)

But not only does 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘞𝘪𝘤𝘬𝘩𝘢𝘮𝘴 acknowledge the humanity of the working class, the play recognizes their inherent equality, a radical notion in Austen’s day. A similar subtext is the woefully restrictive lives of the female characters, regardless of class. Dependent on husbands, fathers, and benefactors, with limited work options, it’s no wonder that women flocked to the mills of industrial England (and New England) for employment, as difficult as the work was. These are the painful truths that propel 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘞𝘪𝘤𝘬𝘩𝘢𝘮𝘴 past mere pleasant diversion.

But what a diversion it is. Like 𝘔𝘪𝘴𝘴 𝘉𝘦𝘯𝘯𝘦𝘵, there are gorgeous costumes and sets, mysterious letters, handsome actors, and – of course – love, both the romantic and sibling variety. Also from last year are Katie Grindeland as the ebullient but troubled Lydia Wickham and Alexis Bronkovic (𝘚𝘪𝘭𝘦𝘯𝘵 𝘚𝘬𝘺) as Elizabeth Darcy. Rounding out the cast are Lewis D. Wheeler playing the bighearted Mr. Darcy; Laura Shink as Mrs. Reynolds, the wise housekeeper; Paul Melendy as Brian, the ambitious footman; Philana Mia as the self-doubting housemaid, Cassie; and finally Ed Hoopman, playing Darcy’s arch nemesis, George Wickham. (What is he doing at Pemberley?) Directed by Shana Gozansky – who noted that it is every director’s “dream” to do a holiday show – 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘞𝘪𝘤𝘬𝘩𝘢𝘮𝘴 is both entertaining and provocative. In other words, the best kind of holiday show.

At Merrimack Repertory Theatre from Nov 26 to Dec 22.

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