Ensemble Theatre Company performs ‘The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley’
Ensemble Theatre Company is recreating the world of Jane Austen in its second play of the season.
“This is the second play in a trilogy of imagined sequels to the novel ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ ” director Michael Butler said about “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley.”
The play’s first preview performance took place Thursday night, with another preview show at 8 tonight. The regular shows will begin Saturday at the New Vic, 33 W. Victoria St., Santa Barbara, where the play will run through Dec. 19.
“The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” features Rebecca Mozo as Lizzie, Adam Poss as Mr. Darcy, Will Block as Brian, Nike Doukas as Mrs. Reynolds, Kyle T. Hester as Wickham, Kodi Jackman as Cassie and Chelsea Kurtz as Lydia.
Mr. Butler, the artistic director of the Center Repertory Company in Walnut Creek, was recruited to direct the play by his friend, Jonathan Fox, the artistic director of Ensemble Theatre Company.
“This is one of the shows from the 2019-2020 season that got canceled” because of the pandemic, Mr. Butler told the News-Press by phone from the San Francisco Bay area. “When the original director couldn’t do it, I was honored to say ‘yes.’
“The first play in the trilogy took place upstairs in the drawing room with the nice furniture and good drapes,” Mr. Butler said. “This one is downstairs where the (household) staff meets and eats and hangs out and where the upstairs folks come down for biscuits and gossip and deal with problems. This is the side of that world which we don’t see very often.”
Mr. Butler described the play as a drama-comedy with a lot of heart.
“The humor comes from a very human, character-driven, somewhat situational place,” he said. “It’s certainly not a farce. It’s not zany.
“The two playwrights (Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon) were very interested in being true to the tone, the style, the period of Jane Austen,” Mr. Butler explained. “And they try to recreate that world. It’s a realistic creation of Jane Austen’s world of 1815.
“Within that, they push the envelope on the theme and messages,” Mr. Butler said.
“The Wickhams: Christmas at the Pemberley” takes place two years into the happy marriage of Lizzie and Darcy.
“Lizzie is a strong woman who is now in her big position to become strategist-in-chief at Pemberley,” Mr. Butler said.
He discussed another strong woman in the story.
“Mrs. Reynolds is the housekeeper, but a housekeeper in 1815 is not what we think of as a housekeeper,” he said. “She is more like a chief operating officer. She runs the joint and probably has a staff of 100 people.
“She’s known Darcy since he was a boy,” Mr. Butler said.
“We get to see Darcy allowing these women to keep him in line and give him a little hell occasionally,” Mr. Butler said. “It has a good effect on him.”
The director said Darcy is learning how to become a better man and a better husband through the lessons the women teach him. “It’s a glimpse of how feminism should work.”
So everything’s going well at the Pemberley household.
Then comes trouble.
“The unexpected arrival of George Wickham into the family’s Christmas plans threatens to wreck havoc,” Mr. Butler said. “He’s known to most readers of Jane Austen as (simply) Wickham.”
And Wickham and Lydia are two years into their unhappy marriage, Mr. Butler said. “Lydia is trying to put on a brave face, but the cracks are showing. Her struggle in the play is one of transforming from the ‘silly girl’ Wickham married. That’s his term for her.”
The play shows the beginning of Lydia’s journey toward becoming a strong, independent woman, Mr. Butler said.
Elsewhere in the household is the possibility of romance with two characters introduced by the playwrights: Cassie and Brian, young people from the village.
Cassie’s the new housemaid.
“Cassie has dreams of self-determination. She wants to read and wants to make her own decision about her own life without a man,” Mr. Butler said. “She’s not against having a man in her life, but she wants to have her own self-determination.
“Brian’s also from the village and is working as a footman at the Pemberley for a while,” Mr. Butler said.
Brian is attracted to Cassie and wants to pursue her, but Cassie is trying to put romance to the side.
“But love will find a way,” Mr. Butler said. “It’s a really beautiful, somewhat comedically bumpy romance. Brian’s got lessons to learn.”
Mr. Butler discussed the appeal of Jane Austen’s world for 21st-century audiences, who deal with the same issues of human interaction that people faced in the 19th century.
“I myself am one of eight children and have five sisters. I’m the product of a strong mother and five sisters who love Jane Austen,” said Mr. Butler, who grew up in upstate New York and found Austen had the answers for difficult social situations.
“What would Jane do? What would Jane say?,” Mr. Butler said. “Within her books are explorations and answers to all kinds of situations, snobs, invitations you don’t want, troublesome aunts and interfering rich people.
“Jane Austen deals with it all.”