Published in 1854, Charles Dickens’ Hard Times – For These Times satirizes English society in its depiction of economic and social hardship in a fictitious industrial town in Victorian England called Coketown. In Coketown, a great divide exists between those of means and those without as Utilitarianism governs much of the school system as well as workers’ rights. Now in a production adapted and directed by Heidi Stillman at Lookingglass Theatre, Hard Times combines circus-style spectacle and scenes of naturalistic drama to tell one of Dickens’ lesser-known literary works.
The action begins in a schoolhouse where the schoolmaster, Mr. Gradgrind (Raymond Fox), asks his students for facts, grilling one pupil, Sissy (Audrey Anderson), on the definition and characteristics of a horse. Sissy, whose father works at a circus, doesn’t do so well in this regard; however, through a series of somewhat unlucky circumstances, she is allowed to remain in school and taken in by Mr. Grandgrind and his wife, where she befriends Louisa (Cordelia Dewdney), Gradgrind’s daughter, who pines for the freedom of the circus.
Scenically, Hard Times measures up to its title, with Dan Ostling’s sparse, towering set and dreary staircases framing the action. Period costumes from designer Mara Blumenfeld clothe actors in a monochromatic wash of blacks, whites and greys that clearly delineate their standing in Dickens’ tale of class and utilitarianism. The drabness of Hard Times’ somber environment is punctuated by the colorful, polka-dotted world of Sleary’s circus, a welcome respite from the bleak existence Dickens’ characters face in Coketown.
As adaptor, Stillman does an admirable job constructing a through line and juggling the plethora of Dickensian characters, although Sissy, Hard Times’ aerial poster child, does float by the wayside a tad too long. The spectacle of the circus is expertly realized through a partnership with the Actors’ Gymnasium, which certainly pays off in elevating the moments audiences get a glimpse at the circus. As a metaphor, these scenes are a potent theatrical metaphor of Louisa’s inner desires, further embellished through original music by sound designer and composer Andre Pluess.
Even so, the production doesn’t always reach the heights of its circus theatrics. As director, it seems that Stillman could have gone further in establishing the stakes of the piece and further fleshing out the setting. Well-crafted by a talented team of designers, it doesn’t always feel as if people are populating this world, nor is it always clear what external pressures are motivating each character. This causes the narrative to dip and sag across its nearly three hour running time, despite strong work from many of the actors, most notably Cordelia Dewdney as Louisa. Dewdney offers a layered and expressive performance fraught with considerable emotional weight, helping to dispel some of the play’s murkiness. Current parallels aside, fans of literature may rather choose to read Dickens’ novel than experience it, especially considering it is one of his shortest works.
Hard Times plays through January 14 at Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave. Tickets are $50-$85 and are available for purchase online or by phone at 312-337-0665. Performances are Tuesday-Sunday.