Lookingglass returns to its 2001 adaptation of Charles Dickens’s allegorical tale of yearning in an Industrial Age mill town.
With its stark juxtaposition between the free-living world of the circus and the hard-bitten life of a northern English milltown, Charles Dickens’s Hard Times is not just a perfect fit for a Lookingglass/Actor’s Gymnasium collaboration, it’s also a perfect fit for our present times. And it’s not as though this is news to anyone.
The original production, adapted and directed by Heidi Stillman (who returns), was quite a hit when it first opened back in 2001, and the issues that it deals with, particularly the issues of labor rights and income inequality, have only become more pressing. The only moment that feels even slightly out of sync is when the utilitarian-minded schoolmaster, Mr. Gradgrind (Raymond Fox in an incredibly nuanced performance), starts ranting about how he wants nothing but facts. In the current “fake news” era, audiences might be slightly more sympathetic toward his point of view.
Of course, a play can be timely and insightful without being actually good. Luckily, that’s not the case here. Hard Times is wonderful, a seemingly effortless blend of acting, script, design and staging. (“Seemingly” only because it no doubt required quite a bit of effort.) The sets by Daniel Ostling create a kind of post-industrial cage that expands and contracts around the characters without ever fully releasing them. The lighting by Brian Sidney Bembridge creates a fluid, fairy-tale mood, while Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes evoke an indelible sense of place. The circus theatrics choreographed by Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi are not just stunning, but perfectly integrated by Stillman. The acrobatics don’t just further the story, they lie at the heart of it.
At the center of the play is the dastardly Mr. Bounderby (the superb Troy West), the capitalist demi-king of the play’s northern England setting, Coketown. He is a cruel and heartless man who can’t stop describing his humble origins and self-made status. He is the future husband of Louisa (Cordelia Dewney), a melancholy young woman and exactly the kind of student that her father, Gradgrind, seeks to produce: obsessed with cold, hard facts and incapable of imaginative thought.
Mr. Bounderby also provides lodging to the possessive widow Mrs. Sparsit (the hilarious Amy J. Carle), and employs at his bank Louisa’s shiftless brother Tom (JJ Phillips), as well as Mr. Stephen Blackpool (David Catlin, heartbreaking), a hopelessly kind and noble mine worker seeking some small measure of happiness in his life.
When Stephen visits Bounderby looking for a way to divorce his derelict drunk of a wife so he can marry his true love, Rachel (Louise Lamson through December 19, then Atra Asdou), Stephen lists out all the ways that the law works against him, finally crying out “show me the law that helps me!” In Mr. Bounderby’s world there is no such law. In Mr. Bounderby’s world, the only person the law would deign to help is one Mr. Bounderby.
The only person in the play whose existence is mostly free from Mr. Bounderby’s is Louisa and Tom’s schoolmate, Sissy (Audrey Anderson). She’s an aerialist alongside her father in the traveling circus that stops nearby. At the beginning of the play, Sissy’s father abandons her, hoping his daughter will continue her education and claim a better life.
And even though Mr. Gradgrind is on the verge of expelling Sissy—on account of her “bad influence” on the other children—he takes pity on her and brings her on as his ward. After the children graduate, she stays on and works in his household. The polar opposite of Bounderby, Sissy subsists on hope and love and the spirit of the imagination. It’s little surprise, then, that she holds the key to several characters’ salvation—especially Gradgrind, the type of man we could actually use more of in today’s society: One who has fortitude to realize that his cherished, closely-held ideas are, in fact, incredibly harmful poppycock.
Lookingglass Theatre. From the novel by Charles Dickens. Adapted and directed by Heidi Stillman. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 15mins; one intermission.