|The Concord Journal|
|Players bring 'Hard Times' to life|
|By Parkman Howe|
There are two problems in Dickens. Either you don't have the right parents, or you don't have the right spouse.
To put it another way, you can struggle with Fate, or you can struggle with Free Will. Dickens himself was born into poverty; his father was imprisoned for debt.
Despite 10 Children, Dickens' own marriage was unhappy. What to do?
Write fiction in which children find their true parents and lovers find (mostly) their true loves.
"Hard Times" has roughly the same plot of other Dickens novels. It also has the essential Dickensian relish for character and language which makes it a joy to read, to listen to, and now to watch. Dickens has had a relatively happy translation to radio, screen, musical and stage, probably because his imagination is as much pictorial as it is linguistic.
Dorothy Schecter has assembled an exceptionally strong ensemble for this winter's Players' production. The cast of nine plays 20 or more more roles, often switching social rank and accent as well as costume.
The relatively bare stage designed by Geoffrey Hall together with its effective lighting design by Linda Taylor make transitions between the episodic scenes natural and effective. John Murtagh's collection of costumes also makes the visual impact of the show vivid.
Although the novel is short by Dickensian standards, the show is a long one, lasting just over three hours, including intermissions. The action flows swiftyl between some scenes, but others require blackened pauses to set up props.
The elimination of these pauses would enhance the production's continuity and speed. The actors also narrate the surrounding events in which their characters are involved. Some of these frames are clearly delineated from individual scenes and become touching set speeches in and of themselves. Others lack such distinction and definition
These reservations, however, are minor. The cast makes the complicated plot come alive. Christopher Davies, as Mr. Gradgrind, and George Spelvin, as Mr. Bounderby, both give superb portraits of blustering industrialists. Brad Walters, as the luckless and friendless Stephen Blackpool, captures both the accent and bearing of the down-trodden English working classes. David Eiranova makes his dull and delinquent Tom Gradgrind a pleasure to despise. John McAuliffe takes the prize, perhaps, for best presentation of two diametrically opposed characters: the lisping circus promoter Mr. Sleary, and the debonaire rake Mr. Harthouse.
Susan Ellsworth, always a pleasure to watch in any role, brings her usual flare for mannerisms to the spinsterish Mrs. Sparsit. Jeanne Barton as Sissy Jupe and Henri Holekamp in her principal role as Rachael both provide convincing, distinctive performances in their supporting roles. This kind of ensemble acting allows everyone to shine.
Maureen Conners in the lead role of Louisa has not only the best moments in the play, but the emotional and technical resources to rise to those moments. Like all great novelists, Dickens skirts melodrama, and bathos often lies close at hand. Connors ably avoids excess. Her louisa is by turns leaden, loving, trusting and piercing. Although the audience on opening night didn't applaud Louisa's climactic scene with her father, I wanted to and should have.
A word of appreciation must also go to Joan Garnett and Bette Cloud as Dialect Consultants. The actors' regional English accents were strong enough not to call attention to themselves, but to preserve the illusion of Coketown in Lancashire in the 1840s.
As long as we can still breathe and have eyes to see, we will read and watch Dickens. As all psychologists know, as long as you have the right parents and find the right spouse, the rest is a breeze. Well, almost. But the Concord Players production makes "Hard Times" look easy.