Imagine a small boy in the bleak world of 19th-century England. His parents are dead; he is in the custody of his older sister, a harridan who is prone to gusts of even more extreme anger and her husband, a blacksmith. Hard days and poverty envelop their waking hours like the cold English fog, and if he has nightmares they are still the best part of his day. What would you say about this boy, this Pip? Perhaps that he has Bad Expectations. Or No Expectations.
Charles Dickens had a different thought, and as a result Great Expectations is probably the best novel in the Dickensian canon, and certainly the most modern. It is focused, and clear; the digressions which characterize Bleak House and Pickwick Papers are largely absent. The story is told from the youth’s point of view and his experiences are all to a point. Still, it is 183,000-plus words, and originally issued in the form of a weekly serial, lasting nine months. How did Gale Childs Daly turn it into a play, and how does Everyman Theatre and Tazewell Thompson put it on?
The answer is: vigorously, with great attention to detail, and in a manner which is as much storytelling as theater. (Indeed, the playbill identifies the cast, other than Pip, as “Narrators” one through five.) Actors will step out of character in order to deliver large chunks of story, transporting us over months and years to get to the juicy parts. This takes some getting used to, but it is not burdensome. Ten minutes ought to work.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading the novel, let me set it up for you. Phillip Pirrip, better known as Pip (Drew Kopas), is orphaned at a young age and taken in by his hard, angry, much-older sister Georgiana (Franchelle Stewart Dorn) and her kind-hearted husband Joe (Britt Herring, as good as I have ever seen him). Joe is a blacksmith; Pip will be apprenticed to be a blacksmith; and that’s to be the end of it.
Except it isn’t. One day Pip, visiting his parents’ graves, is accosted by the escaped convict Abel Magwitch (Bruce Randolph Nelson), who demands he steal food for him. Motivated by equal parts fear and compassion Pip does; but the law catches up to Magwitch, who confesses to the theft. Shortly after Magwitch is hauled off to the calaboose, Pip receives a curious invitation: the reclusive Miss Havisham (Dorn) wishes Pip to visit on a regular basis, apparently to amuse her.
Miss Havisham’s snippy, haughty young ward Estella (Elizabeth Anne Jernigan) attends her; Pip immediately falls in love. Speaking of love, Miss Havisham herself was once gloriously in love with — well, let’s just say it, it’s the 19th century, after all — a cad, who left her at the altar after making off with a considerable quantity of her money. Miss Havisham thereafter never left her decaying mansion (or, apparently, took off her wedding dress); in moments of extreme self-pity, she has her enormous, cobwebby, ancient wedding cake — which has fed only mice — wheeled out.
One day the lawyer Jaggers (Nelson) swaggers into the pub where Joe and Pip are enjoying an evening’s meal and announces that an unidentified benefactor has bestowed Pip with a great deal of money, the purpose of which is to allow Pip to complete his education and become a gentleman. To become a gentleman — i.e., someone who can earn his living without perspiring — is an obsession with Pip, and pretty much everyone else in class-drunk 19th-century England. In preparation, Pip tries to take lessons from his sweet second cousin Biddy (Jernigan), who is the classiest person he knows.
Jaggers assigns his legal understudy Wemmick (Herring) to show Pip around and teach him the ropes, which to Wemmick reduce themselves to one shibboleth: “obtain the portable property.” Pip takes rooms with Herbert Pocket (Gerrad Alex Taylor), who gives him a more complete version of Miss Havisham’s history of misery; as a result, Pip becomes convinced that she is the source of his good fortune, and that it is her intention that he and Estella live together in blissful harmony for the rest of their days, although he sees that he has the brutish Bentley Drummle (Herring) as competition. What actually happens is much more interesting than he imagines.
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Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations
closes March 5, 2017
Details and tickets
The staging is a little reminiscent of Fiasco Theatre productions, in that the narrative voice jumps from actor to actor, as though there was a crowd of witnesses explaining what it was that they just saw. But Fiasco specializes in bare-bones productions, whereas the production values here are out of this world. I realize that “nice set” is something a polite person might say to an actor friend who is in a terrible show, but this is a good show, and Yu-Hsuan Chen’s set is astonishing. There are multiple venues for the story but the principal domain Chen has established is Miss Havisham’s mansion, and it is everything that Dickens said it was. The walls are the sickly green of tarnished copper; you can practically smell the mold. Yet at the same time it hints at a forgotten grandeur; you can see glimpses of a once-sumptuous interior, where long ago a happy young woman might have danced with her beloved. Miss Havisham sits before a working fireplace, the significance of which becomes apparent later in the play.
The other production work is equally fabulous. Stephen Quandt’s lighting helps make Chen’s set work; dim and cold inside the Havisham manse, warm and welcoming otherwise. There is a window looking out into the yard; Quandt suffuses it with time-of-day lighting expertly. David Burdick’s period costumes are spot-on, whether they be Jaggers’ elegantly professional clothes; or Miss Havisham’s faded wedding dress; or the dirt-stained outfit Magwitch wears. When the characters are upon the water, there is fog. And here are some words I never thought I would string together in this order: that is one scary wedding cake. Jillian Mathews is the prop master.
I must admit I found the declamatory style a little difficult at first. The narrators in particular seemed so over-the-top that I had difficulty accepting the authenticity of the account. This style, too, takes about ten minutes before it stops being a distraction; the reason it stops being a distraction is that the actors fully commit to it, and do so consistently. (There is an amusing patch of the play where Pip wanders in to see an alarmingly bad production of Hamlet. What makes it so bad is not just that the actors are all terrible; it is that they are terrible in different ways, thus making the play much worse than it had to be).
The production does justice to this good work. I have already mentioned Herring; I cannot go without telling you that we also have another great performance from Bruce Nelson, who achieved such separation among his characters that I had to check the photos in the playbill to assure myself that they were all being played by the same man.
And the production captures the moral center of the novel, which is the way Pip’s promotion to gentleman status affects his relationship to Joe, who is a true gentleman if the word has any meaning at all. I’m guessing that to Dickens, who was the son of a man sentenced to a workhouse for his debts and who became a gentleman because of his literary gifts, a production which conveys this point is a success. In this and in many other ways, Everyman’s production succeeds.
Great Expectations, adapted from the Charles Dickens novel of the same name by Gale Childs Daly . Directed by Tazewell Thompson . Featuring Drew Kopas, Bruce Randolph Nelson, Gerrad Alex Taylor, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Elizabeth Anne Jernigan, and Brit Herring . Set design: Yu-Hsuan Chen . Lighting design: Stephen Quandt . Costume design: David Burdick . Sound design: Fabian Obispo . Fight choreography: Lewis Shaw . Props master: Jillian Matthews . Stage Manager: Cat Wallis . Produced by Everyman Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.