Chicago Theatre Review
A Dickens of a Production
Hard Times – Lookingglass Theatre
As the holidays approach, we’re treated to a remounting of another novel by Charles Dickens. This time there are no visits by the spirits of Christmas past, present and future, but, rather, a hard-edged glimpse of English society, while enjoying the author’s satirical examination of the social and economic conditions of the mid-nineteenth century. Dickens’ fictional Coketown, where this play takes place, is a mill town that’s patterned after Manchester during the Industrial Age.
Like most of Dickens’ work, this tenth and shortest of his novels was first serialized in a weekly periodical. It was eventually published as a novel in 1854. Unlike most of the author’s stories, Hard Times doesn’t focus on a single character, but is rather a sweeping look at the Victorian world north of London. It’s about a wide range of characters from all walks of life. This novel, especially in adaptor and director Heidi Stillman’s capable hands, contrasts the strict Utilitarian school of thought versus the human need for diversion and entertainment. Utilitarianism stressed facts rather than a life of anything resembling creativity or fun.
The plot of this epic play is far-reaching and contrasts the drudgery of the workaday world with the freer circus life. Mr. Gradgrind is superintendent of a school that stresses Utilitarianism. He’s assisted by professed self-made, no-nonsense businessman, Mr. Bounderby. Both of Gradgrind’s children, Louisa and Tom, are students at his institution of strict learning. Stillman’s play focuses on these two young people as they mature, both secretly wishing for a little lighthearted enjoyment in their lives. After their formal education has been completed, Tom earns a top position in Mr. Bounderby’s bank; Louisa, with prospects for little else in life, is handed over to the odious Mr. Bounderby to become his wife.
Another student in this school is Sissy Jupe, a girl who’s grown up in the circus. When her father abandons her, leaving Sissy alone in the world, Gradgrind takes her into his family. Sissy quietly resists the type of education offered, much to the dismay of Mr. Gradgrind; however, she and Louisa become dear friends, offering each other support and kindness. Louisa would like nothing more than to live the kind of life Sissy has experienced, but she becomes stuck in a loveless marriage. When a wealthy, upper-class gentleman named Mr. Harthouse shows her some interest, Louisa cautiously responds; however, nothing comes of this, except her realization that the world can offer more than mere black-and-white facts.
Another plot line revolves around Stephen Blackpool, a blue collar worker toiling away at one of Bounderby’s mills. After Stephen raises some concerns for the working conditions of his fellow employees, he’s fired. Shunned by his fellow workers and no longer able to support his drunken wife, Blackpool tries to find work in another town. With his only friend a young factory coworker named Rachel, Blackpool finds himself wrongly accused of robbing Bounderby’s bank, and he ends up falling to his death.
Dickens sought to educate the public about the conditions of mill towns at this time, along with the perils of an English educational system that only stressed factual material and saw no need for joy and creativity. Both the author and this playwright strongly believe in the importance of an individual’s imagination. Life, they both are saying, shouldn’t be merely reduced to a collection of facts and statistics. In this play, the circus and its people are seen as the antithesis of this rigid school of thought. It’s looked upon as a place where creativity, expression and soaring flights of fancy can flourish. The final moments of Ms. Stillman’s terrifically ambitious production leaves the audience with a marvelous visual: Louisa whirling high in the air amid the circus folk.
Directed with empathy and energy, Heidi Stillman’s new production is a saga that contrasts facts with fantasy. It’s a plea to tap into the creative part of our lives and resist becoming buried entirely in facts and figures. A gifted backstage artistic team at Lookingglass Theatre have created an environment that supports Stillman’s vision. Dan Ostling’s massive, erector set-like scenic creation, cloaked in Brian Sidney Bembridge’s sparkling lighting and Andre Pluess’ appropriate sound design all add to the play’s atmosphere. Add to this Mara Blumenfeld’s magnificent period costumes and you have the consummate production of this nearly forgotten Dickens novel.
The ensemble cast is uniformly extraordinary. The talented company consists of the ever-marvelous Cordelia Dewdney as the sweet, unfairly repressed Louisa; Audrey Anderson playing the kindly, wide-eyed circus star Sissy; David Catlin as both hardworking Stephen Blackpool and the worldly-wise circus barker Mr. Sleary; JJ Phillips nicely portraying the sullen and stalwart Tom; the always versatile and remarkable Raymond Fox as Mr. Gradgrind, Sissy’s father, and other characters; Troy West portraying the pompous, bombastic Mr. Bounderby; Raphael Cruz as fellow classmate and bank employee Bitzer, as well as a marvelous, multitalented circus performer; Marilyn Dodds Frank playing a heartbreaking Mrs. Pegler; Louise Lamson in a wide variety of roles, including Rachel, Mrs. Gradgrind and a graceful circus performer; talented Nathan Hosner, also in a number of roles, including the handsome charming aristocrat, Mr. Harthouse; and Amy J. Carle, playing a variety of challenging parts, including busybody Mrs. Sparsit, along with others.
Heidi Stillman’s visually stunning and emotionally inspiring production of Charles Dickens’ novel is magnificently rendered at Lookingglass Theatre by a team of gifted artists, both on and offstage. The story is bound to move audiences to consider the importance of an individual’s creativity and, hopefully, the relevance of the arts in our educational system. Plan on spending the better part of three hours with this talented company of actors and be rewarded at the curtain call with a renewed view of the world.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 4-January 14 by Lookingglass Theatre Company inside the historic Water Tower Water Works,
821 N. Michigan Ave. at Pearson.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 773-477-9257 or by going to www.lookingglasstheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.