Strawdog Theatre Company. By Charles Dickens. Adapted by Gale Childs Daly. Directed by Jason Gerace. With Mike Tepeli, Amanda Drinkall, Caleb Fullen, Mary Winn Heider, Cody Proctor, Paige Smith. Running time: 2hrs 30mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
Dickens loved deliberate repetition, so he'd surely be pleased to know Strawdog's quite deliberate Great Expectations has returned in tremendous form. Strawdog's stirring new adaptation of a Dickens you don't see everywhere this time of year, first seen this time last year before earning mentions on numerous best-of-2013 lists and a Jeff Award for director Jason Gerace, traverses Pip's semiheroic journey to gentleman and back as spryly as ever.
The six-actor adaptation by Wisconsin playwright Gale Childs Daly quotes extensively and directly from Dickens in its shared-narration style, allowing it to retain remarkable fidelity to the author's style while simultaneously animating it. Daly allows you to hear directly such Dickens tics as the aforementioned repetition (she milks Uncle Pumblechook's exhortation to "be grateful, boy, to them which brought you up by hand" for all it's worth), and the ultimate inevitability of his plotting unfolds neatly and naturally in Gerace's quick-trot staging.
Four of the six cast members are new since last year (though some appeared in the show's brief Theater on the Lake remount over the summer), but the two key players in making my expectations great both return.
Amanda Drinkall earned some of the loudest critical acclaim for her first turn as Pip's unattainable love, Estella, and she's had quite a year since: She's had high-profile roles at the Goodman (Venus in Fur) and Victory Gardens (Rest), and just wrapped an independent film opposite Michael Patrick Thornton with the writer/director team of Caitlin Parrish and Erica Weiss. It's richly deserved success—just look at how easily, and radiantly, she switches between ice-cold Estella and the soft, longing warmth of Estella's opposite number, Biddy.
If a return viewing demonstrates anything, it's that Mike Tepeli deserves the same notice as Pip. Playing the uneasy narrator of his own story, Tepeli shrewdly navigates Pip's coming of age with all its missteps, making him easily relatable if too rarely empathetic.
We wonder at Pip's fascination with Estella and connect with the newfound shame he internalizes thanks to the cruel ministrations of Miss Havisham (Mary Winn Heider) and her frosty ward, and cringe as his obsession with becoming a gentleman causes him to shun his kindly brother-in-law Joe (Paige Smith), "ever the best of friends." Yet even as he's narrating his own actions, Tepeli takes us along Pip's emotional arc impalpably, organically, expertly, growing into his character's confidence with winning assurance of his own. With the cast rounded out by Caleb Fullen's goofy comic turn as Pip's comrade Herbert Pocket and Cody Proctor as the intense convict Magwitch, Great Expectations continues to live up.