Condensed Classics 

The Rep opens with Great Expectations

In both and A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens tells the story of a man’s transformation. The Tennessee Repertory Theatre is presenting both works in its fall season, but adapts more easily to the stage. It’s a novella in which Scrooge’s transformation from hard-hearted miser to generous patron of the Crachits takes but a single night. In Great Expectations, however, the transformation of Pip, a poor, working-class orphan who cherishes the seemingly impossible dream of becoming a gentleman, takes years. This may explain why the Rep’s current production sometimes seems as if it’s taking the audience on a fast-forward gallop through Dickens’ lengthy novel.

Dickens, who published in 1861, was a master at creating complex, eccentric and fascinating characters. As a result, his novels are readily adaptable for the stage: The mid-’80s off-Broadway adaptation of another Dickens novel, Nicholas Nickleby, was a four-night marathon, a dramatic experience akin to seeing all of Wagner’s Ring cycle in a single week. Robert Johanson’s adaptation of Great Expectations, which squeezes the massive book into a three-hour play, retains Dickens’ humor and his best characters. But the sense of Pip’s gradual transformation from indifference to insight is lost.

Dickens draws a parallel between Pip—who is rescued from an apprenticeship as a blacksmith by a “mysterious benefactor”—and Estella, the beautiful orphan girl adopted by the wealthy Miss Havisham. A spinster who was jilted on her wedding day, Miss Havisham has molded Estella into the instrument of her revenge, a cold heartbreaker who captivates men but is incapable of loving anyone; she introduces Estella and Pip as children with the calculating cruelty of a spider entertaining a fly. Inflamed with the ambition to become a gentleman and win Estella, Pip becomes ashamed of his own adoptive family, headed by the coarse but kind Joe Gargery and anchored by Biddy, the kindly servant who cares for Pip’s ailing sister. His naive certainty that Miss Havisham is funding his education to prepare him for a match with Estella is dashed when he discovers that his benefactor is actually Magwich, an uneducated criminal with motives similar to Miss Havisham’s. Like Scrooge, Pip ultimately experiences a transformation of the heart, and he comes to realize that his greatest fortune is Biddy and Joe’s unflagging love and support.

Director Don Jones has assembled a terrific—and mostly local—cast, and their entertaining performances save what might otherwise be a very long evening. Actor David Alford, who is also artistic director of the Mockingbird Public Theatre, gives a wonderful performance as Pip, and Richard Pruitt steals every scene he appears in as the kindly, bumbling Joe. Steve Meigs and Richard Northcutt are oddly menacing as Mr. Jaggers, the solicitor who becomes Pip’s guardian, and Wemmick, his solemn clerk. Joe Keenan does a hilarious cameo as Wemmick’s deaf Aged Parent when Wemmick brings Pip home for a visit. Nan Gurley is malignant and pathetic as Miss Havisham, while Jennifer Rohn is slightly wooden as the icy Estella.

Jones and scenic designer Brian Laczko have done their best to overcome the constant scene changes as Pip moves from village graveyard to Joe Gargery’s home to Miss Havisham’s to London to Wemmick’s house to Mr. Jaggers’ office and so on. The basis of Laczko’s set is a maze through which Pip travels on his roundabout journey toward gentlemanliness and then back home. While the symbolism works, the structure has the unfortunate effect of distancing the audience from the action, which has already been telescoped by the adaptation. As set pieces move up and down, onstage and offstage at a sometimes frenetic pace, the result is that, in many scenes, the characters seem too far away and the action too panoramic. However, if the Rep’s production of loses the impact of Dickens’ carefully structured narrative, it still brings his fascinating characters vividly to life and retains the bizarre, picaresque quality of Pip’s adventures.

The Rep’s double-dose of Dickens this season was inadvertent and expedient—the company’s decision to stage again at Christmastime was not announced until summer. Nothing about the play will change from last year except the location; it opens Nov. 30 at Opryland’s Acuff Theatre. While the Rep’s is a good production—and most of the cast will be returning—this year marks the fourth time it has been staged in the last six seasons. The Rep will soon discover whether shares the holiday magic of The Nutcracker, which is staged successfully every year by the Nashville Ballet.

The Tennessee Rep’s runs at TPAC’s Polk Theater through Nov. 12. Call 737-4849 for ticket info.

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