For those who may be “Christmas Carol”-ed out, there’s an enchanting Dickens holiday (or anytime, really) alternative in Giles Havergal’s savvy stage adaptation of “David Copperfield.” This smart, handsome production is the first Christmastime show presented at the Westport Country Playhouse since the renovated theater decided to go year-round. Joanne Woodward marks her exit as a.d. — she will be succeeded by Tazewell Thompson — by co-helming with Anne Keefe a polished cast that embraces the wondrous spirit of the picaresque novel.
Havergal knows a few things about adapting sprawling novels, having ingeniously reinvented “Travels With My Aunt” for the stage by having no less than five actors performing that leading role. For “Copperfield,” originally produced at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater in 2001, two adult actors perform the title role.
Like the lugubrious 1970 film version, it has David as an adult writer looking back at his life. But instead of being passive and wistful, Havergal’s David is an active and engaging narrator, played with intelligence and charm by Mark Shanahan. In a lovely bit of theatricality, the narrator steps into his own story at play’s closing scene when he finally grasps the totality of his life from orphaned child to fully realized adult, and recognizes the significance of the people who have filled it.
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And what a group of people. There’s Molly Regan’s Betsey Trotwood, David’s formidable but loving aunt; Tom Beckett’s deliciously smarmy Uriah Heap; Simon Jones’ pontificating and good-souled Mr. Micawber, with Allison Mackie as his faithful-to-the-end wife; and Beth Fowler’s warm and cherry Peggotty. Sean Cullen discovers two levels of villainy as Mr. Murdstone and Creakle, while Saxon Palmer brings multiple shadings to Steerforth, David’s callow friend. Bill Buell and John Keating do well as simple fishermen Dan and Ham, and Patrick Horgan brings a dignified vulnerability as Mr. Wickfield.
The women in David’s life possess a complex fascination, and the perfs do the characters honor. Samantha Soule shows fragile devotion as David’s mother and as steadfast Agnes; Winslow Corbett is a knowing delight as Dora, David’s child-wife. In just a few deft touches, Nicole Lowrance makes David’s childhood friend Emily funny, impulsive and human.
Holding the story together — no small feat — is Kieran Campion’s young David. Though clearly an adult, Campion evokes just the right amount of freshness, sweetness and naivete of youth, from age 7 on, without being coy or cute.
David P. Gordon creates a versatile set, an extension of the Playhouse’s barnlike interior, decorated with the basic symbols of David’s far-flung life: a fisherman’s net, a theater curtain, a chandelier, a street lamp. All prove just enough to evoke a place without getting in the way of the fast-moving story.
Linda Fisher and Randall E. Klein’s Victorian costumes and Clifton Taylor’s lighting complete the necessary look and feel of the scene, with the actors’ skills and concise staging supplying the rest.
Unlike the two-part, eight-hour “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” by the Royal Shakespeare Company — whose adaptation and production set the standard for others to follow — “David Copperfield” comes in under three hours. In doing so, it vastly simplifies much of the plot and jettisons some memorable characters from the book, not the least of which are lovable Mr. Dick, Murdstone’s wicked sister Jane and sweet Tommy Traddles, David’s schoolboy chum. Though far from the epic sweep of “Nickleby,” Havergal’s “David Copperfield” is still a theatrical pleasure.