With steam wafting from the factories painted across the backdrop of Washington Stage Guild’s production of Hard Times, it doesn’t take long before issues about industry and social progress take center stage. Hard Times by Charles Dickens considers the importance of pragmatism and facts and the rise of capitalism while grappling with the reality of wretched working conditions, moral dilemmas, and life decisions in shaping society in a fictional scrabbly spot in northern England, Coketown, in 1854.
The beautifully rendered production at Washington Stage Guild,adapted for the stage by Stephan Jeffreys, includes an array of usual Dickensian characters– budding industrialists, grimy factory workers, orphans, rigid school masters. But in this case, snippets of a wonderfully imagined horse-riding circus are included at the beginning and referred to at the end of the show, serving as allegorical bookends to help brighten and expand an otherwise soot-filled mindset. Through spirited characters on both sides of the social divide, the story relays the effects of the Industrial Revolution and nods to a philosophical movement known as Utilitarianism that argued for education to be logical and rational at the expense of imagination and creativity.
All of the characters in Coketown are played by four of the finest actors in the metro region. It’s a treat to watch them play off of each other as part of this energetic ensemble.
Brit Herring does wonders as the stiff and formal school master, Mr. Gradgrind, and then the son, Tom, with physicality, expression and bluster, whether he’s pushing his daughter into a loveless marriage, or cowering with righteous indignation when reprimanded unfairly over a supposed misdeed. In the circus stint, Herring even becomes an adorable panting dog, prancing horse, and performs a cartwheel as part of the jostling entourage.
Steven Carpenter’s elocution is masterful as he depicts the upper crust, rather sleezy Josiah Bounderby, then easily slips into working class Eliza Doolittle-like open vowels as a Union sympathizer. Sue Struve starts off playing the hurt little school girl trying to keep up with the recitation of facts while more inclined to creativity and wonderment. Struve switches effortlessly to portray the patiently shrewd house mistress who must suppress her disappointment with being pushed aside, only to find a way to ease her way back into Bounderby’s graces.
Finally, Chelsea Mayo maintains a quiet reserve as Louisa caught between social demands and expectations. Louisa endlessly helps retrieve her beloved yet wayward brother Tom from near outcast downfall. She’s dutifully stoic when her father pushes her to marry Bounderby, the rather odious factory owner old enough to be her father, only to be tempted by a suitor’s affection. Mayo handles her character’s decisions and inner journey with steady assurance.
Hard Times closes December 8, 2019. Details and tickets
The play works on so many levels and the segments flow seamlessly into each other as key messages unfold. Originally published as a weekly serial, the sections are identified as Book the First – Sowing, Book the Second— Reaping, and Book the Third—Garnering. Director Bill Largess is a perfect match for the material honed as he is in the wonders of G.B. Shaw. Largess assures that as the multiple characters spiral in and out of the script the result is satisfying rather than dizzying.
Every aspect of the design is carefully crafted and executed. The lighting by Marianne Meadows is particularly effective as the characters shift into various moods and emotional scenes. When a missing character is discovered having fallen in a mineshaft, the rest of the cast become part of the rescue operation to hoist him up, complete with body movement simulations, each bathed in their own waves of blue as the situation unfolds. Sound design by Frank DiSalvo Jr. is also effective with urgent factory blasts, bustling urban sounds and background music that lilts and sways to match the onstage events. Sumptuous costumes by Basmah Alomar bring an elegance to the ladies with puffy dresses, beads and shawls with the men in tailored fitted waistcoats.
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The simple set design by Carl Gudenius and Jingwei Dai is a decorative iron-work with sectional frames that helps define the actors’ placement, entrances and reflective poses. The intriguing floor design of spokes veering out of expanding concentric half-circles could easily symbolize order and infinite reach simultaneously.
Admittedly, this is an ambitious work with bucketloads of script, but the pacing, clear adaptation with tantalizing narration, and beautiful execution of the material engage the audience for a fun and enlightening experience. The script even includes the line—“People must be amused.” Dickens knew how to hook in a following, and this production of Hard Times does him justice.
Hard Times by Charles Dickens; Adapted for the stage by Stephen Jeffreys; Director— Bill Largess; Cast: Steven Carpenter, Brit Herring, Chelsea Mayo, Sue Struve; Setting— Carl Gudenius and Jingwei Dai; Costume Design— Basmah Alomar; Lighting Design—Marianne Meadows; Sound Design—Frank DiSalvo, Jr.; Stage Manager— Arthur Nordlie; Produced by Washington Stage Guild . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.
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