The world of “Hard Times, as in many of Charles Dickens’ novels, is a sharply divided one, with unyielding technocrats helming the brutal, spirit-sapping Industrial Revolution on one side, and humane artists and eccentrics on the other. The former deal strictly in facts and figures, measuring success in terms of money and status, while the latter thrive on imagination and joy. And even if some might call these dreamers irresponsible, they possess an instinctual understanding of what makes life bearable.
‘HARD TIMES —FOR THESE TIMES’ Highly recommended When: Through Jan. 14, 2018 Where: Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Tickets: $50 – $85 Info: www.lookingglasstheatre.org Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission
Another pervasive Dickensian theme is the pernicious social divide, with the poor forever trapped in a legalistic world devised by and for the well-to-do, and unable to dig themselves out of their situation no matter how hard they might work. If all this sounds far too familiar, it is worth noting the remarkably prescient subtitle of Dickens’ 1854 novel — now receiving an alternately heartbreaking, shrewdly comic and exquisitely poetic stage adaptation by Lookingglass Theatre — was “Hard Times — For These Times.”
First adapted and directed by Heidi Stillman in 2001, this wonderfully re-imagined reprise of the show, presented in association with the Actors Gymnasium, not only feels more timely than ever. But it is sharper and clearer in its storytelling, and boasts a slew of absolutely brilliant performances.
Set in Coketown, a fictitious Victorian mill town in Northern England where grinding labor, poor wages and pollution are the price for the prosperity of a small group of fat cats, Dickens (who had a genius for inventing his characters’ names) introduces us to Mr. Gradgrind (a perfectly hidebound Raymond Fox), the school superintendent (later a politician), who confuses rote learning with education, and to his friend, Mr. Bounderby (Troy West, peerless in a portrayal that could easily put him in line to play a certain president). Bounderby is a wildly narcissistic mill owner who propagates false stories of his penniless childhood. He is “cared for” by Mrs. Sparsit (Amy J. Carle, who brings down the house in a notably scathing monologue), an Italian widow of considerable breeding but no money who serves as his housekeeper and (perhaps) former mistress. Bounderby also is observed from afar by the mysterious Mrs. Pegler (deftly played by Marilyn Dodds Frank).
Gradgrind’s own children — Louisa (Cordelia Dewdney, an actress of supreme emotional intensity) and her brother, Tom (JJ Phillips, ideal in his feckless manipulativeness) are students in their father’s school. And their repressive education results in Louisa tragically suppressing her true self and submitting to a repellant marriage with the far older Bounderby, while Tom, who selfishly sacrifices the sister who adores him, eventually falls into a life of decadence.
Louisa’s only friend is Sissy (the utterly beguiling actress-aerialist Audrey Anderson), the fanciful and compassionate daughter of an undependable clown in a traveling circus run by the sweetly lisping Mr. Sleary (David Catlin in a most winning turn). And while Gradgrind briefly permits her to attend his school, he eventually makes her caretaker for the ailing Mrs. Gradgrind (Louise Lamson, a remarkable age-shifter who also flies high in aerial sequences performed with Julie Marshall). Sissy will later come to Louise’s rescue when she becomes infatuated with Mr. Harthouse (the spot-on Nathan Hosner), a charming but unreliable visitor from London.
Meanwhile, we meet the powerless poor who work in the mill — Stephen (played with quiet desperation by Catlin), who labors hard to support an alcoholic wife he cannot afford to divorce, and Rachael (beautifully played by Lamson), the kind, generous-hearted friend he wants desperately to marry.
The show unfolds with the grace and ease of a perfectly choreographed ballet, with Dan Ostling’s monumental steel set (ideally lit by Brian Sidney Bembridge, and with superb character-defining costumes by Mara Blumenfeld), continually wheeled into different configurations, all underscoring the prison-like world of this society. And in true Lookingglass style, the world of beauty and fantasy are captured in lovely circus scenes (winningly choreographed by Syliva Hernandez-DiStasi), in which Anderson magically works on ropes and a trapeze, along with Raphael Cruz, a most enchanting actor-acrobat (who also shrewdly portrays the unctuous little banker, Bitzer).
The pain of Dickens’ story is ideally countered by the beauty of this production’s flights of fantasy and deep emotional connection. Captivating in every sense of the word.