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Hard Times

This splendid production of Charles Dickens's lesser known, least sentimental novel was adapted by its director Bart De Lorenzo at The Evidence Room. It , is a reminder of how rich and funny Dickens's language is, how humane and colorful his characters and how searingly saddeningly contemporary many of his themes still are.

Set in a bleak English industrial city called Coketown, whose sky is always shrouded by smoke from factory chimneys, the play begins in the classroom of Thomas Gradgrind whose pupils include his daughter Louisa, son Tom and Sissy Jupe, child of a circus acrobat. Facts are Thomas's passion and it's no surprise that both his children grow up to be ensconced in the ménage of the town's wealthy factory owner, Squire Bounderby. Tom becomes an apprentice and persuades his sister Louisa, who adores him, to become Bounderby's bride, much to the fury of Bounderby's housekeeper, Mrs. Sparsit, a lapsed aristocrat.

Tom takes to drink and Louisa attempts to help workman Stephen Blackpool, one of nature's noblemen, when he loses his job. Blackpool embodies two of the social evils Dickens attacks in this novel: unions and divorce. Though he doesn't join the workmen who try to unionize, he earns Bounderby's enmity anyway, as well as theirs. He also begs Bounderby to advise him on how to divorce his wife who abandoned him and only returns to steal from him. Bounderby replies divorce is too expensive for the likes of him and Blackpool's tragic story does not include a romance with Rachel, the woman he loves. There's a bank robbery, a man who falls in love with Louisa in the person of James Harthouse and a mother rejected by Bounderby because she's too respectable and spoils his manufactured persona of a self-raised man. "If you've raised yourself, lower yourself," somebody grumbles. The third strand in the tapestry is Sissy Jupe's poignant and colorful circus family, headed by lisping ringmaster Mr. Sleary.

De Lorenzo has selected narratives from the text to be performed by different cast members. This keesp Dickens's voice firmly in control and reminds you whose world you're in. The strong pacing and dramatic staging which are his trademarks are well interpreted by an excellent ensemble.

Ames Ingham's fragility molds the strength of Louisa. Ben Messmer catches the arc of her brother Tom from a lovable little rascal to a young man who hates his life, uses his sister and comes to a bad end. Lisa Black is discontented and snide as the waspish Mrs. Sparsit. Two of Dickens's most eccentric characters are the ringmaster Mr. Sleary, made colorful, lisp and all, by Henry Lide and tiny Mrs. Pegler, who is content to flit in and out of the life of her rascally son Bounderby like some blinded butterfly. She's played by Janellen Steininger who also is miserably boozily adrift as the alcoholic Mrs. Grindgrad. Don Oscar Smith makes Bounderby a villain of bourgeois weight and Jan Munroe projects an upright well-meaning but limited schoolmaster/MP, Thomas Grindgrad. Michael A. Shepperd is a touching and imposing presence as Stephen Blackpool. Liz Davies brings warmth and dignity in the underwritten role of Rachael and Colleen Kane is heartbreaking as the abandoned child Sissy who doesn't understand the schoolmaster's facts but memorizes mythology to tell stories to her wretched father. Blake Robbins brings ambiguity to the character of James Harthouse that makes Louisa's ambiguity credible.

Jason Adams and Alicia Hoge's stunning set design incorporates platforms of the dark wood prevalent in Victorian times and Lap Chi-Chu's subtle lighting has the dim radiance of candlelight. Ann Closs-Farley's simple effective costumes use earth tones as well as the burgundy favored by Victorians and the vivid colors worn by the circus players.

The danger of devotion to fact and industry at the expense of imagination and compassion are Dickens's passions here. There's no romance, no happy endings for the children and couples involved. Louisa, betrayed by her beloved brother and the victim of a miserable marriage, chooses to live out her widowhood alone. Perhaps that's why this is one of Dicken's least popular novels but it's well worth the loving care it receives in this production.

Adapted from Charles Dickens's novel by Bart De Lorenzo
Director: Bart De Lorenzo
Cast: Jan Munroe (Thomas Gradgrind), Ames Ingham (Louisa Gradgrind), Ben Messmer (Tom Gradgrind), Colleen Kane (Sissy Jupe), Adrian A. Cruz (Bitzer/Kidderminster), Henry Lide (Mr. Sleary), Don Oscar Smith (Josiah Bounderby), Janellen Steininger (Mrs. Gradgrind/Mrs. Pegler), Kevin Cristaldi (Childers/Stackbridge), Lisa Black (Mrs. Sparsit), Michael A. Shepperd (Stephen Blackpool), Liz Davies (Rachael), Blake Robbins (James Harthouse).
Set Design: Jason Adams and Alicia Hoge
Lighting Design: Lap Chi-Chu
Costume Design: Ann Closs-Farley
Sound Design: John Zalewski
Running Time: Two hours 40 minutes with one 10-minute intermission
Running Dates: May 1-June 6, 2004
Where: The Evidence Room, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, Phone: (213) 381-7118.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on.May 8.
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