Great Expectations at PICT Classic Theatre: A stage adaptation is Dickens Lite

by Michelle Pilecki, City Paper

Dylan Marquis Meyers and Jordon Ross Weinhold. Photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons.

Dylan Marquis Meyers and Jordon Ross Weinhold. Photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons.

Let’s skip the obvious jokes that beg for a put-down of anything titled Great Expectations. PICT Classic Theatre’s production, under the direction of its artistic director, Alan Stanford, succeeds in pulling off one huge show: big in scope, cast, timeline — if not quite in expectations.

The late and highly respected Hugh Leonard, prolific but sentimental playwright, has cleaned up Charles Dickens’ original in his 1995 adaptation. No “Dickensian” slums. No horrors of rapacious capitalism. No real villains. Poor Miss Haversham is to be pitied, not reviled. Lesser personages border on the twee, and my Anglophilia can take only so much. Mr. Pumblechook embodies a Punch cartoon (though actor Ken Bolden does his bombastic best as the buffoon). It’s all so embarrassingly cheerful I could just spit.

The design team and crew do yeoman jobs, notably production manager/technical director George DeShetler Jr., with Michael Thomas Essad and Joan Markert on set and costumes, respectively. Stage manager Cory F. Goddard, his assistants and crew seamlessly move from Holborn to the middle of the Thames.

The greatest virtue of Leonard’s adaptation is his retention of Dickens’ first-person narrative. Pip exists as both adult and child, narrating each other’s progress and, at times, arguing with himself. Dylan Marquis Meyers handles the smooth gentleman, but the most pleasant surprise is Simon Colker keeping pace in the unusually demanding child role. (Colker alternates with Elliott Pullen.)

The large cast is filled with jewels: Karen Baum as shrewish matron and as helpful maiden; Lily Davis as the unreachable Estella; Martin Giles strong as the steadfast smithy; David Whalen prickly as the lawyer Jaggers; Larry John Meyers gruff as the grateful convict; James FitzGerald as the cutely careful clerk; and the inimitable Mary Rawson sympathetic as the much-wronged “spinster.”

To appreciate the play, it helps to have a taste for Dickens. And since so much of American “Christmas tradition” stems from stylized images of his era, Great Expectations is a likely holiday treat. So let us turn away from current arguments over income inequality and the loss of the American Dream with a play that tells you that true happiness is found only in the class you were born into.

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