‘Tom Jones’ leaves in the juiciest parts

Written By By HEDY WEISS Theater Critic Posted: 02/28/2014, 12:26am

If, by some chance, members of this country’s pear growers’ association happen to be reading this review, they are advised to head straight to Northlight Theatre, where “Tom Jones,” John Jory’s stage adaptation of the Henry Fielding novel, is receiving a most delectable production.

To get straight to the core of the matter: There is a pear-eating scene in this show that might go a long way toward suggesting the fruit is one of the more potent of aphrodisiacs.

I confess that Fielding’s massive tome was the bane of my existence for a full college semester as I took a class in 18th Century English Literature. But in the theater (as in the 1963 film starring Albert Finney), it all bursts to life as it follows the adventures of a young rake who starts as a foundling and is adopted by a loving man of means. Tom develops into a handsome fellow with an essentially good heart, as well as an exceptionally healthy appetite for members of the female sex, most of whom, it should be said, are more than delighted to sate it. Luckily, Tom also has a flair for swordplay that comes in handy given his penchant for getting into compromising positions.

Along the way in this picaresque tale that moves from the West Country to London, there is much to be observed about English society of the period — its class consciousness, moral hypocrisy, attitudes toward marriage and divorce, money and inheritance. But mostly this is a high-energy tale of one young man’s coming of age, and his realization that the tension between lust and love might never fully subside.

Director William Brown, a director of great style, wit and playful intelligence, has cast this production to perfection, with Sam Ashdown, a young, physically fleet actor with lean, craggy good looks, immense grace, and the easy command of language by way of extensive work in Shakespeare, proving himself a marvelous Tom Jones. It says a great deal that watching him I never once thought longingly of Finney.

Ashdown has been surrounded by a bevy of beautiful, gifted women who play several roles apiece, and serve as a most varied assortment of erotic bait.

Nora Fiffer is enchanting as the virginal, perceptive Sophia Western, the true love of Tom’s life who emerges wiser and stronger from the betrayal and heartbreak she suffers. Molly Glynn plays both the promiscuous working girl who initiates Tom into sex and Lady Bellaston, the older socialite of great allure who dangerously ensnares Tom.

Melanie Keller, fetching in corset and bloomers, plays Mrs. Waters, who gets to share that pear, and more, with Tom. And Christina Panfilio is quite the manipulator as Mrs. Fitzpatrick, the woman trying to escape her abusive Irish husband.

The men of this story are not half as bright or worldly as the women, with John Lister as Squire Western, Sophia’s volatile, hard-drinking father; Chris Amos as Blifell, the man Sophia finds repulsive (he is the two-faced “legitimate” son of Tom’s surrogate father, Squire Allworthy, played by Marcus Truschinski), and Eric Parks as the sadistic and lecherous Thwackum.

Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s set, a mix of rustic wooden beams and rococo garden swings, is a beauty, as are the ravishing costumes and hats (by Rachel Anne Healy and Carolyn Cristofani). Tyler Rich’s fight direction is both thrilling and wickedly funny, and an ideal showcase for the tireless Ashdown skill with an epee.

And what about that other famous Tom Jones — that Welsh singer? Let’s just say he is not forgotten.

Email: hweiss@suntimes.com

Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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