Time proves a vicious enemy to Theaterworks’ new adaptation of “Great Expectations.” Because the family-oriented company produces on a Theater for Young Audiences contract, its shows are obligated to run 90 minutes or less. Dickens’ sprawling novel, however, is more suited to five acts, and it suffers from being so heavily condensed. Though sturdily made, the production resembles a blueprint for the story it means to tell.
It takes British scribe Bathsheba Doran 1½ hours just to touch on the novel’s most important plot points. Dickens’ intricate tale describes how a poor boy named Pip (Christian Campbell) rises to the status of London gentleman through a series of coincidences and bouts of good fortune. Spread over 500 pages, the narrative contrivances are excusable, especially since they’re tucked inside subplots and detailed descriptions.
But in the play’s no-frills context, events feel like pure structural conceits. For instance, while Pip is wandering the home of Miss Havisham (Kathleen Chalfant), the eccentric old heiress who hires him to play with her adopted daughter, he has a random encounter with a boy named Herbert (Kenneth Boys) whom we’ve never met before. Herbert then disappears. Why, we might ask, was he even there? It’s so that later, when Pip grows up and moves to the city, he can run into the boy, befriend him and become his roommate.
If Herbert were one of many strangers Pip encountered, it might be surprising when he turned up again. But since he’s the only one, he plays like a strained device. Dickens seems less magical when we can see so clearly the cogs in his storytelling machine.
And because characters’ emotions get reduced to short phrases, actors’ perfs tend to be superficial. Even Chalfant, playing a woman who hasn’t taken off her wedding dress since she was jilted at the alter decades earlier, struggles to transcend one-dimensional kookiness. But considering her tortured relationship with her own family gets reduced to a pair of montage scenes, it’s impressive that she manages even a few moments of palpable sadness.
Campbell’s Pip is a cipher, built mostly of earnest stares as other people do things to him. Among the supporting cast, Paul Niebanck, as Pip’s surrogate father, makes the most memorable choices. The man’s good heart is apparent in the way he gently touches Pip and beams while hearing of the boy’s good luck.
Director Will Pomerantz keeps traffic moving smoothly. When characters speak transitional dialogue, costumed stagehands wheel new sets into place. However, the streamlined blocking makes the production a tad stiff, as though there were no room to stray from mapped-out actions.
Michael Picton’s music thickens the air of formality with violin bursts that tell us exactly when it’s time to be moved.
But even if it lacks raw feeling, the play does its job with no major fumbles. This take on “Great Expectations” may not be a classic, but it’s certainly respectable.