Stage review: PICT Classic Theatre presents a gritty version of Charles Dickens’ classic

By Christopher Rawson, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette

Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette

Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes – whatever their genres, the great authors were always great storytellers. Victorian novelist Charles Dickens (1812-70) belongs in that elite company, and although he wrote little for theater, he had a very high dramatic sense and there have always been those to adapt his wonderful stories for the stage.

Among them is Alan Stanford, artistic director of PICT Classic Theatre, who adapted and/or directed at least five Dickens novels for the Gate Theatre in Dublin. Among them is Dickens’ early “Oliver Twist,” an archetypal tale of the perilous life of a young orphan on the streets of London that Mr. Stanford has now directed at PICT Classic Theatre, where he is artistic director.

It’s not just young Oliver’s life that is in peril in this rich melodrama. So too, it has been said, is the survival of PICT, which has gone through a well-reported financial crisis and for which “Oliver Twist” has been billed as a make-or-break production. (More on this to come.)

If you know the story of “Oliver Twist” only from its lively musical version, “Oliver!,” or if that version has overlaid the Dickens novel that you’re pretty sure you read way back when — which probably covers most of us — you’ll be surprised by the cruelty and danger of this stage version. For an author famed for sentiment and humor, Dickens is also a poet of darkness.

Granted, it leaves out many characters and a great deal of plot, because any Dickens novel provides enough of both for a miniseries or three. But in Mr. Stanford’s version we realize that cutthroat Fagin, the head of the gang of youthful pickpockets, is no sweet eccentric; that Nancy, no matter how sympathetic, is a bedraggled prostitute; and that the well-fed, self-satisfied gentlemen who rule this world are even more ignorant, hypocritical and contemptible than the musical allows.

So it’s a grim business, especially Act 1, which attends doggedly to the narration, unleavened by bursts of color, on a platform set more spare than even PICT’s finances would seem to necessitate. Aided by Joan Markert’s costumes, Act 2 is more vivid and energetic, as the drama heightens of scenes alternating between Oliver’s well-meaning protectors and his savage hunters.

Fortunately, fiduciary restraint has not limited the cast of two dozen, which through double- and triple-casting seems like much more. It’s a big play.

The star role is Fagin, where James FitzGerald is limited to a kind of greasy charm (far from the Fagin of “Oliver!”) until in Act 2 he is given two wonderful, spine-chilling soliloquies about death, a hypothetical child’s (to frighten Oliver) and his very real own.

Will Sendera makes an appealing young Oliver, although like others in the cast, a combination of accent and insufficient projection makes him sometimes unintelligible. Martin Giles does what he can with Oliver’s philanthropic savior, good characters being so often less interesting than bad.

For those, we have Tony Bingham, coolly chilling as the murderous Bill Sikes, and David Cabot and Bridget Connors as the pompous and grasping Mr. Bumble and wife, whose gusto is what we mean when we call something Dickensian.

Mixing good and bad is the feisty, doomed Nancy of Karen Baum. You have to love Simon Colker’s Artful Dodger, who triumphantly accepts deportation to Australia, where he doubtless goes on to become a successful politician. Small Dickensian gems are contributed by Ken Bolden’s Mr. Sowerbury and Jordon Ross Weinhold’s Magistrate.

It’s a hefty evening at just over 2 ¾ hours (intermission and Mr. Stanford’s curtain speech included), but the story keeps us involved.

“Oliver Twist” may not be a Christmas story, like that other Dickens tale we see every December, but for its real denouement, there’s this: PICT now says it intends to persevere and will announce a 2016 season soon – and that’s a present we can all share.

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.

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