Long, Long Times

Just The Facts, Ma'am: David Ingram and Marcia Saunders in Hard Times

Versatile actors in a grim adaptation of Dickens.

by Cary M. Mazer

Hard Times

People's Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, through Oct. 30, (610) 644-3500

Coketown - to judge by the production of Hard Times, adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from the grim 1854 novel by Charles Dickens, currently at People's Light & Theatre - looks very much like the grim factories that fuel its economy. Rows of cables and winches hang from steel girders in a bare bricked-in room marked off into numbered lanes. The only light comes in faintly through grimy industrial windows in the back wall. It is a world of perpetual haze, punctuated by colorless vertical beams of light.

Coketown is, like Gradgrind (David Ingram), the educational theorist whose philosophy rules the city, a world of incontrovertible facts. Its children are battered into adulthood by banishing any thoughts that cannot be proven to be as factual as two plus two equals four. They aren't allowed to imagine or to dream.

Yet we, in the audience, are allowed little else. We must transform this factory floor into living rooms, bedchambers and wedding feasts. It takes little or no effort to imagine this grim space as a deserted mineshaft, but it takes a great deal of imagination to accept it as a sunlit garden, or as the flames dancing in a hearth onto which the browbeaten Gradgrind children project their stifled yearnings.

And it takes a great deal of imagination to populate the teeming world of the novel with the bodies and personalities of only four actors. Dressed in simple checked trousers and waistcoats, petticoats and sausage curls, the four actors switch from role to role by donning and doffing costume pieces, body languages and a vast array of Midlands accents.

The doubling and trebling of roles provide some marvelous opportunities for the four actors. Marcia Saunders, for example, shifts effortlessly from playing the spinsterly Mrs. Sparsit to playing Sissy Jupe, a child bareback-rider deposited in Gradgrind's school when the circus passes through town. Sometimes actors play their conceptual opposites. Ingram, for example, plays both the severe Gradgrind and his scampish son Tom. Peter DeLaurier plays both the factory owner Bounderby, Gradgrind's friend and future son-in-law, and Sleary, the proprietor of the circus. At one crucial juncture in the plot, Gradgrind's daughter Louisa (Mary Elizabeth Scallen) must choose between fidelity to her husband Bounderby (DeLaurier) and a tryst with the handsome gentleman Harthouse (also DeLaurier). And the woebegone factory worker Stephen Blackpool (Ingram), falsely implicated in a crime by Mrs. Sparsit (Saunders), finds whatever comfort he can in his companion Rachael (also Saunders).

If there are pleasures to be had, it is from the actors' characterizations (Scallen's mysterious old woman, DeLaurier's smirking Bitzer, Saunders' absolutely delicious Mrs. Sparsit), the inventiveness of Lou Jacob's direction (which he recreates here after his production for New York's Pearl Theater last season), and the designs of David P. Gordon (set), Ilona Somogyi (costumes), Robert Murphy (sound) and Thomas C. Hase (lighting).

For there are few pleasures to the story itself. Virtually all of the younger characters are crippled by their upbringing and hobbled by their jobs, marriages or class. With love written out of the equation, Louisa finds herself married to the unloving Bounderby. Tom's rambunctious spirit is so crushed that he devolves into a wastrel, exploiting his beloved sister and willfully contributing to the clueless Blackpool's destruction. And Blackpool stumbles through the play, his life remaining to the end a hopeless muddle.

Even though Hard Times is Dickens' shortest novel and the adaptation's storytelling is swift, the performance still clocks in at over three hours, especially with the many sociological arguments and political discussions that Jeffreys wisely retains.

And in two crucial instances, the doubling and the adaptation's structure begin to work against the piece. We just don't see enough of Saunders as Sissy Jupe to sense that character's position, with Blackpool, at the center of the novel's moral universe; Saunders is just too busy playing her other characters. And Ingram, as Gradgrind, is denied his most crucial dramatic moment - the transformation triggered by his daughter's passionate reproach of his philosophy of fact.

Scallen is simply tremendous in this scene, wailing in despair, as Ingram's Gradgrind watches in silent horror. But then, just when we want to see Gradgrind's heart melt, the lights come up and we all go out into the lobby for the second intermission. Gradgrind is a changed man when we come back into the theater; but we never got to see the change occur. It's like seeing A Christmas Carol without the three Spirits.

For all its theatrical zest, Jeffreys' Hard Times is shaken by the exigencies of its length, and teeters under the weight of its narrative. And all the inventiveness of its artists and the imagination of its audience cannot help it achieve the drama that it cries out for.