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Lookingglass Theatre Company opens its 30th Anniversary Season with the return of the award-winning “Hard Times”, adapted from Charles Dickens and directed by Artistic Director and Ensemble Member Heidi Stillman , in association with The Actors Gymnasuim. It was first produced at Lookingglass in 2001, and some of the artists involved this season were part of the original production.

The story takes place in post-Industrial Revolution England. In a gloomy fictional small town dominated by mills and factories, art has very little presence. When a travelling circus comes to town, the circus clown manages to get his daughter Sissy (played Audrey Anderson; this is both her Lookingglass and professional debut) admitted to the best school in town. The school headmaster, Mr. Gradgrind (injecting his role with a very precise old-British flare, Raymond Fox is excellent), soon realizes that Sissy doesn’t belong in his school and makes it his business to notify her father in person. But the clown had skipped town, leaving his daughter behind. Mr. Gradgrind kindly offers her a place in his home and his school, alongside his two children, Louisa and Tom. But Sissy is from a different world, the world where imagination rules, the right words are ones that come from the heart, and mathematics is just an abstract subject that can’t be applied to life. Not exactly cut out for school, she’s left to stay home and care for Mr. Gradgrind’s wheelchair-bound wife while he spends increasingly more time out of town as a newly elected member of the Parliament.

The most important person in town is the mill-owner and banker Mr. Bounderby (the bombastic Troy West), a self-proclaimed self-made man. He has an eye on Louisa, so when she reaches an appropriate age [of twenty], he asks her hand in marriage. Mostly joyless Louisa (Cordelia Dewdney), whose only passion is her brother Tom (JJ Phillips), agrees, hoping that this will help advance her brother’s carrier in banking. Some of Dickens’ characters are quite difficult to relate to in part because of their excessive wordiness and overly dramatic demeanor, and Louisa is certainly one of them. Nevertheless, all characters are very well developed, the most entertaining of them being Mrs. Sparsit, Mr. Bounderby’s paid companion. Played by Amy J. Carle, who also plays Drunk Woman and Pufflerumpus, she’s manipulative and sarcastic and infuses her role with just the right amount of drama.

The circus performances are effortlessly woven into the plot (Circus Choreographer Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi), and are like a breath of fresh air in town’s otherwise utilitarian existence. The circus is colorful and joyful, and it’s easy to see the stark contrast between the worlds of art and creativity versus business and hard menial work. Even Louisa starts dreaming of circus in her lowest moments.
Scenic Designer Daniel Ostling created a highly mobile set that’s both imaginative and practical; it provides ever-changing scenery, and the whimsically painted back wall is capable of becoming magically translucent to allow “dreams and memories” to enter the stage.

While the well-to-do townspeople are being bored with their lives, majority of the town’s inhabitants, the poor miners and factory workers, “work day and night with nothing to look forward to but a little rest”. Struggling to stay alive leaves little room for anything else, much less romance, so when miner Stephen Blackpool (David Catlin, who also plays Sleary) asks his workmate Rachael (Atra Asdou, who also plays Mrs. Gradgrind) to spend time with him, she’s far too hopeless to be interested.

All in all, things are as expected: the wealthy run things, the poor have nothing, and a travelling circus is a refuge from it all. If running away with the circus was ever a good option, Tom, who finds himself in trouble with law, doesn’t hesitate for a moment.

“Hard Times” is being performed at Lookingglass Theatre through January 14th. For more information visit www.lookingglass.org.

Published in Theatre in Review

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