Photo: Wesley Hitt, Courtesy TheatreSquared
This is not the show you expect at Christmastime. And not just because TheatreSquared’s production of “Great Expectations” is a world premiere. “Great Expectations” is a Christmas story because the narrative starts on Christmas Eve, when we meet the young protagonist Pip in a graveyard, looking at the headstones of his deceased parents. That dreariness pervades throughout the play, and not just because it’s set in notoriously dreary England. But we don’t bury all holiday cheer just yet.
“Great Expectations,” as produced by T2, finds its source material in Charles Dickens’ much talked about and much loved 1861 novel. The characters we know from that literary classic – including the cold-hearted Estella, the strange and manipulative Miss Havisham and the impossibly kind Joe – all make an appearance in this new stage adaption, written by Robert Ford and directed by Amy Herzberg, both TheatreSquared founders.
What: TheatreSquared’s “Great Expectations”
When: Wed-Sun through Jan. 1, 2017
Where: Nadine Baum Studios, Fayetteville
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or theatre2.org
Pip, a commoner in the wild destitute nothingness of rural England, gets invited to entertain the town eccentric, Miss Havisham. There he meets Estella, similarly young and similarly under the enchantment of Miss Havisham. Through mysterious circumstances and an unknown benefactor, Pip gets drawn into the high-class word of London. There, he becomes a roommate and partner-in-crime to Herbert Pocket, who as coincidence would have it, met a young Pip one day in the garden at Miss Havisham’s.
Except this is Charles Dickens, and there are rarely pure coincidences. Let that suffice for a more detailed plot description as well. There’s a reason that everyone meets, and there’s a reason that everyone interacts, even if they don’t know those reasons at the time. To say more might give away the plot to those who don’t already know it. But please do know it aligns with TheatreSquared’s promise of a family friendly play, one of about 135 minutes of run time, not including the intermission.
To translate the vastness of these dueling worlds of poverty and excess into a stage setting, Ford had to come up with a novel device. A matured, still heartbroken Pip (played by Kieran Cronin, when he’s not playing Herbert or a police sergeant) chats with another Pip (played by Mason Azbill), who is named after the older Pip. Through the power of theater, the younger Pip transports through time to see the world through the eyes of the older Pip, which means that sometimes, the older Pip is narrating his own coming-of-age story as it plays out again before him.
Sound confusing? It could be, but TheatreSquared and the six actors selected for this production rarely allow that to happen. The audience knows these characters, despite the fast pace of changes. It’s all told in a mild English accent – divided between a rollicking banter from the country folk and a more refined version from the city types – that never gets in the way of the storytelling. The device works, even as a rare laugh line when Pip confides to the character Biddy that Estella is beautiful. It’s funny because the same actress (Stephanie Bignault) plays both.
But make no mistake, this isn’t a laugher of a play. It’s a tough look one’s role in life and whether destiny can be overturned through money or kindness or sorrow or any one of the world’s primary motivators. In this process, the show covers many themes, including poverty, love, depression and social status, to name a few.
But in the end, we settle on one of those themes, which isn’t such a bad message of the Christmas season. It’s worth repeating – goodness can prevail, even in dreary times.