“For what do we live,” asks Mr. Bennet in Jane Austen’s 1813 classic Pride and Prejudice, “but to make sport of our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?” Austen may be two centuries in her grave, but her gift for sly satire earned her A-list celebrity-writer status to this day. J. K. Rowling called Austen “the pinnacle to which all other authors aspire.” Austen’s wit and insights, along with those of Anthony Trollope, were a stated influence on Julian Fellowes’ scripts for Downton Abbey. It should come as no surprise, then, that what transpires in the downstairs servants’ area of Mr. and Mrs. Darcy’s Pemberley estate is as interesting and complex as what drives the Christmas festivities upstairs. Enter prolific, American playwright Lauren Gunderson (Silent Sky), whose 2018 play The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley opens soon at Olympia Little Theatre (OLT).
This will be OLT’s second production after a 20-month COVID hiatus. One of OLT’s last shows before the pandemic was Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, Gunderson’s first “fanfic” Pride and Prejudice sequel, directed by Kathy Dorgan. The Wickhams, cowritten by Gunderson and Margaret Melcon, is set concurrently with that show. In both scripts, we’re two years past the events of Austen’s novel. Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy and his wife, née Elizabeth Bennet, are hosting family and friends at a Christmas party. The event creates endless work for the servants downstairs, of course, but that’s not their most serious problem. The real hitch is the impending, midnight arrival of Mr. Wickham, described in Dramatists Play Service’s synopsis as youngest Bennet sister Lydia’s “rogue of a husband and Mr. Darcy’s sworn enemy.” Loyal housekeeper Mrs. Reynolds, maid Cassie and footman Brian must keep the uninvited Wickham from scandalizing the family.
Dorgan returned to helm this new “side-quel” production — Gunderson calls it a “companion piece” in her notes — and Erin Cariker reprises her role as Miss Bennet‘s Lydia. Jennie Jenks plays Mrs. Reynolds alongside Kaylee Hawkins as Cassie and Leo King as Brian. Andrew Stashefsky portrays the dastardly Mr. Wickham. The Darcys are played by real-life married couple Alex and Anne Tracy. “They’ve only lived here for a few months,” says Dorgan, who thinks we’ll see a lot more of the Tracys in shows to come. “Often we [the theater community] become kind of insular,” she says. “You look at a play cast and go, ‘Oh, the usual suspects.’ This play doesn’t have the usual suspects. This play has people that probably most Olympia audiences have not seen.”
She believes that’s one of the unsung values of community theater, which she calls an under-recognized treasure. “I think we tend to spend our time and attention on bigger fish, perhaps, even in the community — more known theater groups. And I look at a place like OLT and I think, ‘These are people who represent all different demographics. They represent, certainly, … all different skills levels and knowledge levels about theater, but darn it, they love it. They love putting on shows and they’re enthusiastic about that, and I like that.” Such companies serve as less intimidating on-ramps to people who are new to theater or the area, folks aspiring to restock theater’s community of the future.
“George Wickham, who is notorious in Pride and Prejudice,” Dorgan explains, “is an all-around rogue, rapscallion, whatever you want to call him. … He is persona non grata at Pemberley. … The servants try to hide him from the people upstairs so that his wife Lydia, particularly, won’t see him.” But don’t think this is only a frivolous soap opera about the class-obsessed England of yore. “This play, because it was written by the wonderful Lauren Gunderson, creates a world in which women, particularly women servants, are beginning to think about how they might control their own destiny, beyond just finding a reasonably decent guy to marry.”
Cassie, for example, yearns for more than a workaday existence as a Pemberley housemaid. “She wants to be able to control her own life,” says Dorgan, “so there’s a scene that really touches me where Cassie … says, ‘I want tea and books and the time to enjoy them. I want to wake up in the morning with a list of tasks to be accomplished, and retire at the end of the day knowing I accomplished them.’ ” Well, don’t we all?
“Right?” Dorgan laughs. “Yet this is a person who really has little hope of that.”
“Lydia is celebrating Christmas without Wickham,” Dorgan continues. “[Her family knows] he’s a horrible person, but Lydia clings to this image that she has and that she wants her family to have, which is: No, she’s not desperately poor; no, she’s not left by her husband all the time; they’re, in fact, very happy and he loves her and he leaves her because he must, to pursue business opportunities.” Dorgan laughs. “Everyone in the family knows Wickham is crap.”
OLT requires all guests (and company members) to wear masks and show proof of vaccination with a photo ID.
Photo credits: Olympia Little Theatre.
The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley
7:25 p.m. Fridays, Dec. 3, 10 and 17; Saturdays, Dec. 4, 11 and 18 and Thursday, Dec. 16;
1:55 p.m. Sundays, Dec. 5, 12 and 19
Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave. NE, Olympia
$9 – $15