Review: “Hard Times”

(L to R) Liz Lauren Nathan Hosner, Raymond Fox, JJ Phillips, Cordelia Dewdney, Audrey Anderson, Raphael Cruz

RECOMMENDED

Where: Lookingglass Theatre Company, Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.
When: through Jan. 14, 2018
Tickets: $50-$85
Phone: 312-337-0665

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Lookingglass Theatre Company is kicking off its 30th anniversary season with a reprise of a show it considers seminal: “Hard Times—For These Times,” adapted and directed by ensemble member Heidi Stillman from the 1854 novel by Charles Dickens and produced in association with the Actors Gymnasium. Originally staged at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts fifteen years ago, the circus-infused production benefits from the larger space and more sophisticated facilities at its home in the Water Tower Water Works. The storytelling, though a little confusing at times, remains as compelling as ever, and the acting is excellent all around.

Set mostly in the smoke-choked confines of the fictional Coketown—stunningly brought to life by the wall-filling mural and movable multilevel scaffolding of Daniel Ostling’s scenic design—the play pits the fact-based philosophy of Utilitarianism against the joys of imagination as embodied by a traveling circus that comes to town. The opening scene epitomizes the contrast. Strict schoolmaster Mr. Gradgrind (Raymond Fox, returning to the role) is lecturing his students on the absolute importance of facts, but new student and circus girl Cissy Jupe (Audrey Anderson) can’t describe a horse in factual terms and doesn’t understand why, for example, it’s wrong to want a flowery carpet.

Mr. Gradgrind’s other students are thoroughly indoctrinated, including his daughter Louisa (Cordelia Dewdney) and son Tom (JJ Phillips), as well as Bitzer (Raphael Cruz). The effects of this education, especially on Louisa, are at the heart of Stillman’s adaptation.

Devoid of feelings except for repressed longings she can’t explain—evocatively shown in circus fantasies—Louisa agrees to marry the aptly named mill owner and banker Mr. Bounderby (Troy West, reprising the part), a creepy blowhard who uses the excuse of a deprived childhood to treat his workers poorly. She’s prompted mainly by her brother, who’s driven by self-interest and thinks it will be to his advantage as a Bounderby bank employee. Tom also develops a gambling problem and looks to Louisa to bail him out. Her unhappiness peaks when a well-off bored Londoner, Mr. Harthouse (Nathan Hosner), courts her to amuse himself, and she is tormented by her feelings.

Another plot line centers on Stephen Blackpool (David Catlin), though if you’re not familiar with the novel you may have trouble at first figuring out who he is and how he fits in. A mill worker in love with co-worker Rachael (Louise Lamson until 12/17), he comes home one night to find his drunken wife has returned and goes to ask Mr. Bounderby to help him solve the problem–to no avail. Later, his refusal to join a strike ends with Bounderby dismissing him as a troublemaker for telling the truth about working conditions, and a visit from the sympathetic Louisa with selfish Tom in tow leads to worse consequences for the poor man.

While no-nonsense Bitzer contributes to Blackpool’s misfortunes, the machinations of busybody Mrs. Sparsit (Amy J. Carle), Mr. Bounderby’s live-in companion until he marries Louisa, make matters worse for him. First, she tries to reclaim her position by accusing Louisa of adultery. Then she implicates the mysterious Mrs. Pegler (Marilyn Dodds Frank), who visits Coketown annually just to observe Mr. Bounderby’s success, in a bank robbery for which Blackpool is blamed.

Sissy, meanwhile, virtually disappears from the middle of the story but ultimately is the one who solves the main problems. Early on, Mr. Gradgrind is about to dismiss her from school for being unteachable, but her father deserts her, so he offers to take her in as a companion to Mrs. Gradgrind (Lamson) and continue her education if she’ll stay away from the circus. She agrees, and with her good and loving nature—dependent on common sense rather than facts—intercedes to save Louisa from Mr. Harthouse and Tom from the authorities (by hiding him at the circus).

As is the case with many Lookingglass shows, the visual images are often worth a slew of words. The final one here—of Louisa—is thrilling and makes up for the fact that a couple of the circus routines seem a little confined. The entire ensemble is terrific, but I was especially moved by Dewdney’s sad and rather enigmatic Louisa, and Catlin, not so much as Blackpool but as Mr. Sleary, the kind and wise circus owner. Cruz deserves a shout out as circus acrobat, Le Papillon.

Although I found the amount the set is moved around a little distracting, Brian Sidney Bembridge’s lighting is highly evocative, as are Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes. Andre Pluess is responsible for both the suitably jarring sound effects and lovely incidental music.

Whether you view it as an unconventional holiday show or a normal night at the theater, “Hard Times” is a good choice anytime.