At the Lookingglass Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—The Lookingglass Theatre is renowned for is fantasy productions, like “Lookingglass Alice,” “Metamorphoses,” and “Scheherazade,” but this exceptionally talented company can also stage a straight play with remarkable sensitivity, intelligence, and creativity. Prime example number one is the triumphant Lookingglass adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel “Hard Times.”
The Lookingglass premiered its version of “Hard Times” (full title “Hard Times for These Times”) in 2001 and the show became an immediate hit. The company is reviving the work through January 14 with several of the original cast members in place, and the result, if anything is even better.
“Hard Times” was not among Dickens’s most successful novels when it was published in 1854, but its reputation increased during the 1900’s. The novel, one of the author’s shortest, is a criticism of the philosophy of Utilitarianism, the belief that ideas, actions, and institutions should be judged by how useful they are to the greatest number of people. In “Hard Times,” Dickens criticized Utilitarianism for reducing social relations to cold-hearted general interest, stifling individuality and imagination.
The story initially centers on Thomas Gradgrind (another of Dickens’s evocative character names), a schoolmaster in the grimy northern England mill town of Coketown. In its environmental pollution and oppression of the working class, Coketown displays the worst elements of the Industrial Revolution. Gradgrind accepts only facts and statistics as a valid way of looking at the world. In one cruel, but memorable scene, Gradgrind tries to humiliate young Sissy Jupe in class because she is incapable of providing a Utilitarian definition of a horse. Gradgrind has also raised his children, Louisa and Thomas, according to the tenets of Utilitarianism, thus suppressing their youthful imaginations and warping their personalities as they grow to adulthood.
The adaptation by Heidi Stillman, who also directs, deftly weaves together relationships among the story’s many colorful characters. There is Mr. Bounderby, a pompous and bullying mill owner, who constant lies about his impoverished childhood and marries, unwisely, young Louisa Gradgrind. Stephen Blackpool is a sympathetic millworker who ends tragically, a victim of the unequal class divide between owners and workers in Coketown.
Thomas Gradgrind descends into dissipation and criminal activity and eventually flees England to avoid prison. Sissy yearns for her missing father as she rooms with the Gradgrind family, becoming Louisa’s only friend. And periodically a traveling circus performs, delighting with its aerial acts, and offering a lightness and charm that contrasts with the mean-spirited and unhappy Coketown society.
The 2017 revival takes a more realistic, human view of the characters than I recall from the 2001 original. There is little representation of the Dickensian “grotesques” that populate the author’s other novels (consider Mr. Pickwick, Fagin, Ebenezer Scooge, Miss Havisham, Magwitch). We are in the company of pleasant and generous characters like Sissy Jupe and Mr. Sleary, the circus owner, in contrast to the blustering Mr. Bounderby and the vicious, and perhaps Bounderby’s mistress, Mrs. Sparsit. The dramatic vitality of all the characters emerges from spot-on performance by the entire 11-member ensemble, most of them playing multiple roles.
First among equals in the cast is Troy West for his perfect-pitch Mr. Bounderby. West gave the most resonant performance at the play’s premiere and he has refined Bounderby into an even more obnoxious figure today, but a man with an undeniably gift of gab when it comes to prevaricating about his childhood’s alleged rigors. Raymond Fox reprises his fine performance as Mr. Gradgrind. The schoolmaster was a two-dimensional martinet in 2001, but now Fox convinces the audience that Gradgrind really believes in his horrid educational ideas. That doesn’t make him admirable but it does humanize him.
David Caitlin has the pleasure of playing two of the nice characters in the story, the hard-luck Stephen Blackpool and the happy go lucky Mr. Sleary, and he sells both with warmth. Amy J. Carle is a Mrs. Sparsit who would make an interesting Lady Macbeth. Cordelia Dewdney conveys Louisa’s marred soul, damaged by her father’s misguided teachings, but she could maybe project her lines a little more. The other actors are Marilyn Dodds Frank as Mrs. Pegler, Nathan Hosner as James Harthouse, Louise Lamson as Rachael (a moving performance of the woman who loves the married Stephen Blackpool, hopelessly), JJ Phillips as Tom Gradgrind, and Julie Marshall who does some fine aerial work on a rope.
The production is presented in association with The Actors Gymnasium, the Evanston-based company that has contributed so many entertaining circus-style performances to the area theatrical scene. Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi has choreographed the circus segments, notably performances by Audrey Anderson’s Sissy and by Raphael Cruz, who doubles as a sneaky weasel of a bank clerk when he isn’t executing aerial maneuvers high above the stage.
The production creates its own convincing mid-Victorian English world. Don Ostling’s flexible set designs take us from the drawing rooms of Coketown to its slums as evoked by ingenious bi-level open boxlike frameworks. Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes establish the look of mid-19th century England with totally convincing historical accuracy. The lighting by Brian Sydney Bembridge emphasizes darkness and shadows to establish a noir mood among the many troubled characters. Andre Pluess is the sound designer and has composed a wonderful score, mostly for piano and cello that can be playful or subtly dramatic as the action dictates.
Dickens wrote novels made for the stage with their vivid characters and pungent dialogue. There is a reason why so many of his works have succeeded in motion pictures and on the straight and musical stage. But fine adaptations don’t happen automatically. It requires the vision and talent of a Heidi Stillman. She has plenty of help on stage and back stage in assembling “Hard Times,” but Stillman remains the hero of this amazing enterprise. She has created an engrossing time travel journey back to Dickens’s world through staging that is a marvel of intricacy, yet comes across as clear and inevitable. Stillman and Dickens are a match made in theatrical heaven.
“Hard Times” runs through January 14 at the Lookingglass Theatre, 821 North Michigan Avenue. Most performances are Wednesday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $85. Call 312 337 0665 or visit www.lookingglasstheatre.org.
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