Let me preface this review by saying that Charles Dickens has never been my favorite author. Even as a child, I thought A Christmas Carol was sentimental and what I would today call bathetic. There are numerous sentimental moments in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s wonderful new production of David Edgar’s play of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.
Dickens’ third major work, Nicholas Nickleby was first published in 1839. Bathetic moments just can’t be avoided in such a stew of virtuous maidens, lively harridans, and multiplicitous villains to be vanquished by the handsome young hero, his stalwart friends, and unlikely benefactors. Fortunately, even a hardened case like myself can appreciate uncomplicated sentiment and moral uplift in the dark of the year, especially when it comes in such an amusing, entertaining, and heartfelt package; but this production has riches even beyond these.
Nicholas Nickleby was originally published in serial form, and David Edgar’s Tony Award®-winning stage adaptation has many of the pleasures of serial fiction. First, there’s the underlying promise of the form that good and right will prevail, and that the hero or heroine will not die — it’s a very reassuring form. Second, there’s the fun of following over a long time numerous characters and storylines which you know to be converging. Third, there’s time itself — the feeling that you get to know a community because you spend so much time with its denizens on a recurring basis. In the case of this stage play, the time is long even if the number of episodes is small: the two parts clock in at over six hours. The Nov. 21st premiere was a doubleheader; the two parts will be performed separately, in rotating repertory, through Dec. 20th, with another full-immersion day on Dec. 19th.
Go whichever way you prefer, but don’t miss this theatrical experience. It is of a scale and complexity that can’t often be managed. The theatrical craft required by, and the effort expended on, this project are phenomenal, and so is the result.
It is hard to know where to start praising this spectacular undertaking. Let’s start with the script, which takes the unwieldy 800-page novel and renders from it a kaleidoscopic whirl of incident, comedy, tragedy, moralization, and social criticism that keeps the audience happily engaged through the hours. The direction, which is shared by PRC producing artistic director Joseph Haj and guest director Tom Quaintance, who directed The Little Prince for PRC previously, keeps the show moving at a brisk, not to say blistering, pace overall, while allowing variation with delicious pauses and slow scenes. Between them, the directors have elicited some very fine performances.
Twenty-five actors play 150 characters, and some of those characters play other characters in the play’s play within a play produced by the Crummles Company, a roving theatrical troupe that takes in our hero Nicholas (Justin Adams) and his companion Smike (Jason Powers) — whom Nicholas has just rescued from a whipping at the dreadful Doutheboys Hall “school” in Yorkshire by the simple expedient of snatching up the whip and using it on his employer instead, then making off down the road with the limping, simple-minded boy. The whole play is like this — nested and layered and interlacing matters of great seriousness with comic carryings-on, as Nicholas with his great heart and hot temper takes matters into his own hands again and again, galvanizing the action throughout his episodic adventures.
Nicholas and Smike are the only characters who don’t share their actors with any other characters, and their actors pay them the honor of inhabiting them completely. Justin Adams as Nicholas portrays an admirable, loving, and very real young man. Adams is the extremely good-looking actor who gave us such a memorable Mercutio two years ago at PRC, and he has only increased in skill since. He has the perfect look for the hero of a story such as this; and he has the delicacy of expression, both verbal and physical, to draw us to his upright example, as he draws all the right-minded characters in the play. His foil and counterpart is Smike, the helpless, apparently fatherless, young victim of abuse. Jason Powers’ Smike is utterly winning, sweet without ever being cloying. He is truly pathetic, but never asks for our sympathy. The scenes between these two are unusually beautiful.
All the cast is strong, but special mention must be made of Jeffrey Blair Cornell in his multiple roles, but especially as Vincent Crummles and as Ned Cheeryble, where he plays opposite Scott Ripley as Charles Cheeryble, both in funny Tweedledum/Tweedledee outfits. Ripley plays his own opposite as the horrible one-eyed Wackford Squeers, the villain who runs Doutheboys Hall, as does Jimmy Kieffer, who appears as the hearty John Browdie and the loathsome Sir Mulberry Hawk. Ray Dooley reminds us that this is, after all, a serious play with his chilly and chilling portrayal of Ralph Nickleby, unredeemed and unredeemable usurer, man of machinations, caught in his own snare. Marianne Miller as Kate Nickleby gives another lovely performance as an innocent young woman, and Dede Corvinus is fabulous as Mrs. Squeers, Miss LaCreevy, and particularly as Mrs. Crummles, the force behind the throne in the Crummles Company.
All this zestful playacting would have had no home without the incredible design work of McKay Coble (set) and Jan Chambers and Jade Bettin (the 700+ costume pieces). The multilevel set, with its balconies and bridges and rough facades, runs back in a narrow alley deep into the theater building, giving a powerful sense of the life of Victorian London shooting off in all directions. None of this design work would live without the amazing lighting of Tyler Micoleau. It changes constantly like a dance, and not only does it create the rooms and scenes of the story, it makes you aware of the complex choreography of story and character unfolding before you from what had initially appeared to be an inchoate surging tide of humanity crossing the stage.
Not at all least — the music and sound effects, by composer and sound designer Sarah Pickett. She, with her instruments (including a small harp) and computers, hovers high above on a balcony to one side of the set, and she is occasionally joined there by an actor adding his or her instrument to the mix. Joseph Haj likes having music made on stage, if not actually in the play; and it adds another powerful dimension to the theater experience. In this case, the smart sound design and the visibility of the musician reinforced our understanding of the cunning artifice that it took to make this production so artful.
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby continues in the Paul Green Theatre of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Dramatic Art through Dec. 20th. See our theatre calendar for details. For fascinating detail on the making of this show, see http://www.playmakersrep.blogspot.com/, and see the main PRC site for listings of associated events, and a graphic calendar showing when the two parts are scheduled.