Dickens’s “Hard Times,” adapted by Stephen Jeffreys, focuses on the nascent trade unions and the divide between wealthy mill owners and the faceless workers during the Victorian era. Set in the fictitious Coketown, a Lancashire mill-town, the story follows the fortunes of two middle-class/upper-class families (the Bounderby’s and the Gradgrind’s) and two working-class people—Sissy Jupe and Stephen Blackpool.
This is a play to be savored; it is a work for people who are not afraid to invest some time in getting to their reward.
Interestingly, the young Sissy, who has been abandoned by her father (a circus worker with a dog act) who hopes she will have a better life, doesn’t end up in the workhouse or an orphanage, as would have been most likely at the time. She has been attending Mr. Gradgrind’s school—a school devoted only to facts. He has the patronage and friendship of a wealthy mill owner, Mr. Bounderby, who is enamored of Mr. Gradgrind’s determination to teach children only to deal with facts and quash down anything smacking of imagination.
Given the treatment of the working class at the time and the belief that one may not rise above one’s station, it is not surprising that this goal is wholeheartedly endorsed by Bounderby. He endorses Sissy being taken in by the Gradgrind household as domestic help, and her facts-only schooling continued, albeit as something of a social experiment. From this unusual set of circumstances, the story unfolds.
In a sly bit of thumbing one’s nose at the Unitarian ideals espoused by Mr. Gradgrind, the plot also includes, toward the end, a bit of magical realism when the dog that originally caused Sissy’s father to decamp returns, just in time for a denouement that clears one person’s name of thieving, implicates another in a heist, and brings down an ill-suited marriage. It’s quite a potboiler.
And as staged by the Washington Stage Guild, it’s also most entertaining. Four very adept and talented actors (Steven Carpenter, Brit Herring, Chelsea Mayo, and Sue Struve) each play 4-5 characters—of different ages and classes. It’s so smoothly done they make it look easy. With a change in posture, hat or shawl or apron, accent, they slide in and out of their characters with deceptively graceful ease.
Brit Herring manages the feat of playing both Mr. Gradgrind and his ne’er-do-well son, Tom (as well as Stephen Blackpool and a waiter). And he does so, so convincingly that one finds oneself double-checking the program to make sure there isn’t another actor. As Blackpool, he is spot-on as a working man who doesn’t want to rock the boat but finds himself unjustly accused of theft from a bank.
Sue Struve, as Sissy, Mrs. Gradgrind, Mrs. Sparsit, Rachael and Mary Stokes, pulls off flawlessly the aging of Sissy from around 12 to a young woman in service.
Steven Carpenter takes on the following roles: Bitzer, Mr. Sleary, Josiah Bounderby, James Harthouse and Slackbridge. He is particularly memorable as Bounderby, who is cold, cruel, condescending. At the other end of the spectrum, he plays the circus head, who is warm, caring, loyal.
Chelsea Mayo deftly plays Louisa Gradgrind (who marries Bounderby, but regrets it not long after), Emma Gordon, Mrs. Blackpool, Mrs. Pegler and the Chairwoman of the union). Her Louisa confronts her father about his unorthodox upbringing as he attempted to instill nothing but facts, but left her helpless in the world of feelings and humanity. When she asks him what was she made for—what good is she, it leaves him shaken enough and questioning the underpinnings of his entire philosophy. And, for the first time, he acts like a father.
In the end, we learn what will eventually befall these characters; not everyone will get what they want, and money and success are no guarantor of a rich life.
In the Washington Stage Guild tradition, the production values are beautiful—the set is deceptively simple with a series of iron arches and backdrops in grey/black/white giving off the soot-covered, dull vibe of a mill town in 1850. The scenic design is by Carl Gudenius and Jingwei Dai, and the versatile costumes are by Basmah Alomar.
This is a play to be savored; it is a work for people who are not afraid to invest some time in getting to their reward. The performances are memorable, the set beautifully and simply detailed, and the pacing, particularly in the second act moves well. This play may not appeal to all audiences, but those who like classic works impeccably produced will be very happy.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.
“Charles Dickens’s Hard Times,” runs through December 8, 2019, at Washington Stage Guild, Washington, DC. For more information, please click here.