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     Dickens and The Brutality of The Victorian Age

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    PostSubject: Dickens and The Brutality of The Victorian Age   Wed Feb 24, 2010 1:41 am


    Dickens Shows the Brutality of a Gentle Age

    By DANIEL M. GOLD
    February 17, 2010

    FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES


    “Hard Times” does not make many lists of Charles Dickens’s
    best novels — it’s too preachy, too harsh in its vision of a society
    that trades joy or individuality for materialism and mass production.
    Yet, as the excellent Pearl Theater Company production that opened at
    City Center on Sunday night shows, those very qualities make it well
    suited to the stage.


    Dickens draped his tale of Coketown, a fictional Victorian factory
    city, with contempt for a wide range of societal ills: rampant
    industrialization and pollution, worker exploitation and widening
    income gaps, even England’s rigid divorce laws. In an adaptation that
    is remarkable for how true it remains to the book, Stephen Jeffreys has
    pared away much of the commentary, letting the critique emerge in the
    actions and attitudes of characters as memorable as any in the Dickens
    pantheon.

    Chief among them is Josiah Bounderby (Bradford Cover), the ruthless
    banker and factory owner, a “bully of humility” always preening. His
    friend, Thomas Gradgrind (T. J. Edwards), a schoolmaster and supreme
    “utilitarian,” insists that his students consume an endless diet of
    facts, facts, facts — “nothing else will be of any service to them” —
    with no regard for wonder or creativity.


    Gradgrind raises his own children that way, and it leads them to
    disaster. Louisa (Rachel Botchan) is married off to the much older
    Bounderby — “What does it matter?” she asks listlessly — while Tom
    (Sean McNall), who works in Bounderby’s bank, falls into drink and
    debt. Among other plotlines, their paths cross that of the weaver
    Stephen Blackpool (Mr. Edwards), a downtrodden “hand” at Bounderby’s
    factory. What follows is vintage Dickens, with heart, humor and twists
    that keep the audience engaged until the final resolution.

    Originally produced in the 1980s, this version drew notice for its
    leanness — four actors portrayed as many as 20 roles. But it’s more
    than a trick: “Hard Times” is a microcosm of the bleak Coketown life.
    Its small scale feels right.


    Small, yes, but sleek. Directed with a sure command by J. R.
    Sullivan, this production would delight any utilitarian: seamless and
    well paced, “Hard Times” runs more than three hours yet never lags. Jo
    Winiarski’s Spartan set is defined by its back wall of brick, dimmed by
    smoke and ash, and its high glass panes, murky with soot. The costumes
    by Devon Painter — well-worn top hats and suit jackets, bonnets and
    petticoats — suggest the tired souls they clothe.


    The Pearl, which first presented “Hard Times” in 1997, has swelled
    the cast: six actors now play three or four roles each, as well as
    provide narration. Mr. Cover makes Bounderby a memorable prig while
    avoiding the cheap laugh; Mr. Edwards brings out Gradgrind’s integrity
    as a loving father who changes his ways when he sees how miserable his
    daughter has become. Ms. Botchan and Mr. McNall deliver solid
    performances as the distressed siblings. Also of note are Jolly
    Abraham, as the forever good-hearted Sissy Jupe, and Robin Leslie
    Brown, who feasts on the comic role of Mrs. Sparsit, Bounderby’s
    housekeeper.

    In all, the production is an ensemble triumph. Among the other
    virtues of “Hard Times,” we are reminded how less can often be more.
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