You never have to worry about a paucity of plot with Dickens; in fact, deciding what to leave out is as important as the method of presentation. Folding Chair Classical Theatre's production of Hard Times (adapted by Stephen Jeffreys) treads a middle ground, stuffing its presentation with eighteen characters (plus the occasional bystander), but used only four actors. Production accoutrements were adamantly minimal -- the stage was so resolutely bare that when a tea set on a tray was brought on stage, it seemed absolutely luxurious. That's part of Dickens's point, and this play is populated with some of his familiar types -- the needy poor, the greedy rich, the characters who make a strong impression with just an appearance or two.
The model for any dramatization of Dickens since 1981 is, of course, the Royal Shakespeare production of Nicholas Nickleby. Even though Hard Times is one of Dickens's shorter novels, Jeffreys and director Marcus Geduld had to work hard to get it all into an almost-three-hour running time. The themes and conflicts are all there -- schoolteacher Gradgrind thundering at his students to have a proper respect for facts ("Facts alone are what's wanted in life!"); Sissy, the young girl who prefers fancy to fact; Gradgrind's daughter Louisa, who cannot resist sneaking a peek at a touring circus; his son, who resents him but can't quite rebel honorably; Mr. Bounderby, the factory owner in Coketown (a veritable company town) who has designs on Louisa; his housekeeper, Mrs. Sparsit, who has her own designs on Bounderby. Yet while this production got high marks for effort, it didn't quite come off as intended. If it wasn't not completely engrossing it was also not dull, and this was a tribute to the energetic and enthusiastic cast.
And because of this chameleon cast, many individual scenes came off quite well. When Louisa (Karen Ogle) and Tom (Ashley Strand) talked of their unhappiness, or Sissy (Lisa Blankenship) and Louisa talked about school and their upbringings, characterization began to flower. When Blackpool (Strand) had a moment of companionship with Rachael (Blankenship), it contrasted movingly against time spent with his drunken slattern of a wife (Ogle). When Bounderby (Dan Renkin) announced his intentions to Gradgrind about Louisa, the audience's dismay was offset by a fine comic piece where he breaks the news to Mrs. Sparsit (Blankenship).
But in the end it was all rather too much. There was so much narrative to be covered and the narration, no matter how energetically delivered, still felt like more of an intrusion than an explication. Some of the actors' tricks to differentiate characters worked better than others -- Tom and Blackpool could not be more different, and while Strand did it with the help of a hat and an accent, there was also a smart actor at work. Blankenship too was an acting class of her own with the ingenuous Sissy, the comic Mrs. Sparsit, the sympathetic Rachael. Ogle beautifully portrayed all of Louisa's innocence, devastation, and gradual renewal, as befitted the heroine of the piece, and she did some other fine character bits as well. Renkin was having a grand old time with Bounderby, the scarf-waving lisping Sleary, the is-he-a-villain-or-not Harthouse, but his accents were too often so authentic that he was unintelligible.
The plot itself, of course, is impossible to resist, and as plot pieces got tied together there was a sense of there being at least some justice in the world. Dickens labeled the three acts of his story Sowing, Reaping, and Garnering, and an audience of any kind is the better for a reminder of his faith in the essential goodness of mankind.
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Copyright 2004 David Mackler