The novel was adapted for the stage by Lucinda Stroud at Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle and directed by Jane Jones, founder of Book-It, who also had a voice in the adaptation. (We met her earlier, as director of the wonderful Cyrano last year at PCS.)
How, one may ask, does one adapt a novel such as Great Expectations, a massive novel spanning a generation? It couldn’t have been easy, but Stroud managed brilliantly. I will not give away the technique. But while Dickens’s messages are never subtle, his voice often is–a mix of dialect, sly humor, and genteel and persuasive presentation. It’s the type of writing that is marvelous read aloud. Stroud captures the Dickens magic, meanwhile consolidating a huge story into a play of manageable length. Then Jones brings it to the stage seemingly effortlessly.
The story begins with Pip, an orphan, who lives with his sister Mrs. Joe (Dana Green), a fishwife if ever there was one, and her husband Joe (Gavin Hoffman), a solid, gentle blacksmith. While exploring the marsh near their home, Pip encounters Magwitch (John Hutton), an escaped convict who begs for help. Pip brings him food and a file to cut his leg irons, launching a trajectory of actions and reactions that determine the outcome of the story.
Shortly thereafter, Pip is introduced to Miss Havisham (Dana Green) and her ward Estella (Maya Sugarman), also an orphan. Though both insult him horribly, he is taken with the beautiful Estella and wishes to better himself to become worthy in her eyes. His fortunes change for the better by way of a nameless benefactor who offers Pip the opportunity to become a gentleman. He believes that Miss Havisham has singled him out as the young man destined to marry Estella. He could not be more mistaken.
It’s a dense plot, and Great Expectations is not an evening of effortless, light entertainment. Expectations are dangerous things, and the characters in this story have them in abundance. Much bad behavior results from their expectations, and one is forced to confront morality at every turn. Most of the members of this 9-member cast play more than one role, adding up to quite a lot of characters, many with odd names. It is an absorbing experience, and not only because of the acting.
In theatre I am constantly amazed at how much goes into giving a play the right atmosphere. In this show, a huge clock dominates the back of the set. It is a character whose presence cannot be ignored. (Hats off to Christopher Mumaw for an amazing set.) Likewise, the gate to Miss Havisham’s home speaks volumes as Pip is rotated in and rotated out.
A word to educators and parents: Great Expectations is a MUST SEE for anyone of high school age, but particularly for those who must read the book in an English class. It will make all the difference in understanding and loving this great work.