Stage review: ‘Great Expectations’ sparkles
by Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PICT Classical Theatre’s holiday show this year is a trifle — an English trifle, the traditional celebration dessert of pound cake soaked in alcohol with lots of sweet fruit and whipped cream ladled over it.
The company’s ingredients start with “Great Expectations,” Charles Dickens’ melodramatic 1861 novel of hopes achieved, then dashed, a cast of familiar faces from Pittsburgh’s rotating repertory of actors, snatches of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ music, a wardrobe of period costumes and a flexible set design that strains to contain the story’s many landscapes.
Alan Stanford, PICT’s artistic and executive director, chose to bring out the sweetness and cream of the book rather than the heaviness by focusing on the close relationship between that sterling chap, Joe Gargery (Martin Giles), and his charge, the kindly, clueless Pip, played as an adult by Dylan Marquis Meyers. Mr. Giles is a winning Joe who hasn’t a mean bone in his blacksmith’s body and the greatest of expectations for his best friend.
Mr. Stanford added a healthy dose of humor with James FitzGerald as Wemmick and Ken Bolden as Pumblechook, who sprinkle the production with laughs and physical humor. Karen Baum, in two roles, presents an appealing Biddy after playing the gruff Mrs. Joe while Jordan Ross Weinhold milks his Pocket role for guffaws.
On the dark side, Lily Davis compellingly embodies the emptiness of the damaged Estrella while Mary Rawson plays her tormentor, Miss Havisham, as a bit too kindly. Where there might be madness, her Havisham is gentler and more sympathetic. Also, it would have been more effective if her self-immolation scene had been staged with more light and heat instead of a little red flash.
Pip’s other “father figures” — veterans Larry John Meyers as Magwitch and David Whalen as Jaggers — are vivid characters but their appearances are too brief in this adaptation by Hugh Leonard. There needs to more Jaggers in the play, since he is the key to the novel’s mystery as well as its most fascinating person.
Pip, both the young and mature, and sometimes together, narrates the Dickens’ complex plot, but the chore leaves Mr. Meyers with little opportunity to flesh out the character of the young “gentleman.” Why do so many like this guy so much? Young actors Elliot Pullen and Simon Colker alternate as the boy while Charity Hipple and Carolyn Jerz play the girl Estrella.
The sweep of “Great Expectations” from the marshes of Kent to the teeming streets of London and the churning Thames River is too vast for PICT’s stage, which at times seemed empty and colorless despite a backdrop of projected scenery.
The chilling scenes of Magwitch’s capture of Pip in a dark graveyard and the escape attempt by boat lacked the menace of the book and its several film versions.
Yet, let’s credit PICT and Mr. Stanford for choosing this demanding play for their holiday offering instead of the real trifles (think of another Dickens creation) that so often take the stage this time of year.
At more than 2½ hours counting intermission, “Great Expectations” asks a lot of its cast and audience. This production, though, offers plenty of sparkle to lighten the load.
Bob Hoover is the retired Post-Gazette book editor.