Chicago Theater Review: HARD TIMES (Lookingglass Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 15, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


This exuberant offering first appeared 16 years ago: Lookingglass Theatre Company reinvented Charles Dickens’ tough-loving and always topical Hard Times (for These Times). Whenever this cunning ensemble tell a cruel story truly, you can practically cut the chill in the house. Embracing Dickens’ tenth and shortest novel, a sadly contemporary cautionary tale from 1854, Lookingglass delivered warm and compassionate storytelling. Heidi Stillman’s adaptation and direction honored the rough truths in this denunciation of a humorless world and the dangers of a rote education. What results is a moral melodrama about the harsh harvest of a pervertedly practical “down”bringing.

The production that delighted the Ruth Page Theater in 2001 is now playing the theater’s home in Water Tower Water Works, a building built during Dickens’ lifetime. This reprise feels almost as wonderful as the first time. But not quite.

The setting is grimy Coketown, grimly conveyed by Daniel Ostling’s perambulating iron scaffolding and pollution-choked backdrop. Even more evocative is the industrial-strident sound design by Andre Pluess, the antithesis of his unashamedly romantic score. In this bleak realm Mr. Gradgrind, a rigidly logical paterfamilias who loathes the “idle imagination,” has raised his children to be automatons. The once-hopeful Louisa will marry Mr. Bounderby, an odious no-nonsense, self-made millowner who uses his poor past as an excuse to make sure his factory workers fare no better. Tom exploits his sister’s misery by taking a position at Bounderby’s bank where, undeterred by any abstractions like morality, he schemes to fail. How can he not, his innocence corrupted by an anti-romantic, hard-nosed, utilitarian dismissal of all things fancifully poetic or distractingly musical?

In comic and heart-warming contrast, Dickens presents the life-loving world of Sleary’s Circus, an itinerant band of buskers and roustabouts. Abandoned by her father, a clown who could no longer provide for her, Sissy Jupes is taken in by the Gradgrinds and lightens up their lives. When Tom runs away to the circus to save his miserable hide, Dickens suggests that there may be hope for the next generation of Gradgrinds.

Lookingglass has seldom reflected more. Performed in association with The Actors Gymnasium, Stillman’s delightful staging abounds with trapeze acts where you practically smell the sawdust. These suggest the fantasies that lie buried in Louisa’s stunted soul. She’s stolidly played by Cordelia Dewdney with a haunted and hollow look that could stalk your dreams. Major notes to Louisa’s minor mode, Audrey Anderson’s trusting Sissy Jupes embodies as much joy as Coketown can absorb. A circus orphan, Louise’s sweetly sentimental foster sister is a splendid survivor, implacably loyal to the comparatively cold clan who have replaced the big top with a soft bed.

There’s seldom a false moment among an affecting ensemble, each member plumbing his or her part with deep-sea devotion. JJ Phillips details Tom’s by-the-numbers corruption, his natural freshness coagulating into guile and calculation. Infuriating and pitiable, Raymond Fox repeats his role as life-diminishing Mr. Gradgrind, a literal-minded drudge who holds that flowers do not belong on carpets, if only because we’re not meant to walk on them. This forlorn father means well, does ill, and finally learns and listens. Louise Lamson (originally Louisa in 2001) now depicts haplessly hopeful Mrs. Gradgrind, a mother without a mission.

A proud Midlands polluter and unrepentant greedster, Troy West (also returning to the role) plays venal and pontificating Bounderby, a smug captain of capitalism. This bombastic gasbag, not at all unlike a certain (orange) head of state, sucks the air from the lungs around him—and poisons it as well. Given West’s stentorian outbursts, his energy should either be reduced or matched by equally powerful performances.

In meek loathing, a sinisterly sneering Amy J. Carle is his devious housekeeper Mrs. Sparsit, a dependent and a nemesis. Marilyn Dodds Frank, a Chicago favorite, is the mysterious Mrs. Pegler, who delivers a much-needed reckoning near story’s end. David Catlin reprises his 2001 role as the much-wronged mill worker Stephen Blackpool for whom life is a “muddle” and who refuses to choose sides during a pivotal strike. Doubling as the rigid schoolmaster, the acerbically named Mr. M’Choakumchild, Nathan Hosner is also odiously opportunistic as double-dealing Mr. Harthouse, a bounder with designs on Louisa.

This second time around, this time as a very conditional holiday special, Hard Times—more than before—underlines and italicizes Dickens’ schematic intent. He means to demonstrate the amoral consequences of a materialistic mindset that sacrifices make-believe for pragmatism. The crime that climaxes Dickens’ repudiation of an experiment in relentless rationalism seems more perfunctory than inevitable. Its exposure delivers a bit less satisfaction than it did 16 years ago—four months ahead of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, not to mention 15 years before the advent of a serial liar. Alas, that may well be a sign of the (hard) times.

photos by Liz Lauren

Hard Times
Lookingglass Theatre Company
in association with The Actors Gymnasium
Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.
ends on January 14, 2018
for tickets, call 312.337.0665 or visit Lookingglass

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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