Like many of Charles Dickens’s sprawling novels, Hard Times chronicles the lives and times of multiple characters dwelling in England’s mid-19th-century industrial chaos. But unlike the elaborate stage treatment given to landmark productions of Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist, Stephen Jeffreys’ adaptation of this 1854 novel utilizes just four actors who play several parts and also share passages of direct narration with the audience. Under the direction of Bill Largess, the venerable Washington Stage Guild tackles this challenging but worthwhile production with gusto.
The drama takes place in the fictional Coketown, a gray industrial town in the north of England where “serpents of smoke” mushroom continuously into the air and souls are crushed by backbreaking work, meager pay, and hard-hearted bosses. An array of familiar Dickensian characters – rigid moralists, blustering charlatans, tyrants, idealists, sensitive souls, and fallen aristocrats – populate the cityscape. Though each has his or her own backstory, all are in some way affected by the excesses of capitalism.
Thomas Gradgrind, a successful industrialist, now devotes his time to schooling young folks, including his own children, in a philosophy of “utilitarianism,” which emphasizes rationality, self-interest, and fact, all at the expense of imagination. But the effects of such a rigid education are devastating. His son Tom Jr. goes badly astray and his daughter is pushed into a loveless marriage with Josiah Bounderby, a monstrous factory owner some thirty years her senior. While Bounderby flourishes, his workers are beginning to rebel against the unrelieved misery of their lives. Yet amidst the grime of Coketown, a charming subplot involving a circus troupe is delicately woven into the narrative. Represented by their leader Mr. Sleary, unseen performers suggest the fun and imagination that Gradgrind seeks to stamp out but that nonetheless persist along the margins of the city’s life.
The characters played by each actor straddle the class divide. Brit Herring juggles the roles of the starched Thomas Gradgrind, his dissipated son, and the humble but principled factory worker Stephen Blackpool who is caught, tragically, between his opposition to conflict incited by union firebrands and a boss for whom he is unwilling to spy. With deft gestures and changes in posture, Herring transforms gracefully from one role to the next.
Chelsea Mayo is a lovely Louisa, who awakens to her thwarted emotions and confronts her father’s disastrously dry pedagogy. Her brief turns as three other players are incisive but too short to allow for much character development. Steven Carpenter is suitably bombastic as Josiah Bounderby, who fires not only his employees but also his own wife for defying him. He makes a terrific turn into the lisping, canny circus master Mr. Sleary, who remembers a kindness once shown him by Gradgrind and repays it at a critical moment.
Sue Struve is wonderfully spiteful and nosy as Mrs. Sparsit, the widowed gentlelady who manages Bounderby’s household but is immensely jealous of her employer’s lovely new wife. However, the script also calls for her to play the much-younger Sissy Jupe, the circus worker’s abandoned daughter who is taken in by Gradgrind and becomes young Louisa’s close friend. Age-wise, it’s impossible for virtually any actress to stretch from Sparsit to Sissy. As a result, we’re never quite sure that Sissy is truly Louisa’s contemporary or precisely what her role is in Louisa’s life.
The action plays out against an evocative screen of multiple smokestacks – unrelenting evidence of Coketown’s man-made hell. Scenic designers Carl Gudenius and Jingwei Dai frame the screen with delicate wooden arches, an echo of the Victorian age. Four chairs and one table are virtually the only props onstage, but they are deftly and continuously rearranged to create a schoolhouse, union hall, and parlor and even a perilous mineshaft.
Basmah Alomar’s costumes are similarly simple and effective. A change of jacket, or simply the addition of a well-worn shawl, differentiate one character from the next. Mr. Sleary’s flamboyant red hat and sash are the most dramatic costume accessories.
Though there is little that’s new about Dickens’ critique of industrialism or the dehumanizing effects of unbridled capitalism, the author’s reminders about the power of imagination and simple acts of kindness are timeless and most welcome in a tale that feels in many ways sadly contemporary.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Washington Stage Guild’s Hard Times plays through December 8, 2019, at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church – 900 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 900-8788 or go online.