EXCERPTS FROM THE REVIEW
Below are excerpts from the February 21, 2017 DC Theatre Scene review of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.
Imagine a small boy in the bleak world of 19th-century England. His parents are dead; he is in the custody of his older sister, a harridan who is prone to gusts of even more extreme anger and her husband, a blacksmith. Hard days and poverty envelop their waking hours like the cold English fog, and if he has nightmares they are still the best part of his day. What would you say about this boy, this Pip? Perhaps that he has Bad Expectations. Or No Expectations.
How did Gale Childs Daly turn it into a play, and how does Everyman Theatre and Tazewell Thompson put it on?
The staging is a little reminiscent of Fiasco Theatre productions, in that the narrative voice jumps from actor to actor, as though there was a crowd of witnesses explaining what it was that they just saw. But Fiasco specializes in bare-bones productions, whereas the production values here are out of this world. I realize that “nice set” is something a polite person might say to an actor friend who is in a terrible show, but this is a good show, and Yu-Hsuan Chen’s set is astonishing. There are multiple venues for the story but the principal domain Chen has established is Miss Havisham’s mansion, and it is everything that Dickens said it was. The walls are the sickly green of tarnished copper; you can practically smell the mold. Yet at the same time it hints at a forgotten grandeur; you can see glimpses of a once-sumptuous interior, where long ago a happy young woman might have danced with her beloved. Miss Havisham sits before a working fireplace, the significance of which becomes apparent later in the play.
The other production work is equally fabulous. Stephen Quandt’s lighting helps make Chen’s set work; dim and cold inside the Havisham manse, warm and welcoming otherwise. There is a window looking out into the yard; Quandt suffuses it with time-of-day lighting expertly. David Burdick’s period costumes are spot-on, whether they be Jaggers’ elegantly professional clothes; or Miss Havisham’s faded wedding dress; or the dirt-stained outfit Magwitch wears. When the characters are upon the water, there is fog. And here are some words I never thought I would string together in this order: that is one scary wedding cake. Jillian Mathews is the prop master.
Bruce Nelson, who achieved such separation among his characters that I had to check the photos in the playbill to assure myself that they were all being played by the same man.
I must admit I found the declamatory style a little difficult at first. The narrators in particular seemed so over-the-top that I had difficulty accepting the authenticity of the account. This style, too, takes about ten minutes before it stops being a distraction; the reason it stops being a distraction is that the actors fully commit to it, and do so consistently. (There is an amusing patch of the play where Pip wanders in to see an alarmingly bad production of Hamlet. What makes it so bad is not just that the actors are all terrible; it is that they are terrible in different ways, thus making the play much worse than it had to be).
The production does justice to this good work. I have already mentioned Herring; I cannot go without telling you that we also have another great performance from Bruce Nelson, who achieved such separation among his characters that I had to check the photos in the playbill to assure myself that they were all being played by the same man.
And the production captures the moral center of the novel, which is the way Pip’s promotion to gentleman status affects his relationship to Joe, who is a true gentleman if the word has any meaning at all. I’m guessing that to Dickens, who was the son of a man sentenced to a workhouse for his debts and who became a gentleman because of his literary gifts, a production which conveys this point is a success. In this and in many other ways, Everyman’s production succeeds.