I’ve never been to Gads Hill Place, Higham, England, but I bet Molly Rhode and Lisa Schlenker have. Or at least they’ve seen illustrations of the upper-floor study there, in which Charles Dickens wrote many of his novels, including his final masterpiece, Great Expectations. For Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s staging of that story—which opened this weekend at the Broadway Theatre Center—director Rhode and set designer Schlenker start with Dickens’s study onstage—or a pretty good approximation. There’s his writing desk with the slanted top, and his bookcases, and a few chairs. It’s only a suggestion—there’s no effort to hide the lights and stage walls surrounding it—but it cannily reminds us that Great Expectations is the singular creation of a singular mind. Watching the play on opening night, I always felt like I was in the room where it happened.
A lot does happen, of course, in Dickens’s story of the orphaned Pip, “brought up by hand,” who is plucked from his life of noble poverty and thrust into London society. Gayle Childs Daly’s adaptation, written in 1993, cannily streamlines the tale in classic story-theater style, creating the world of Victorian London using simple benches and chairs as props and scenery. Rhode takes it a step further, putting the items in Dickens’s study to theatrical use. Large books dropped flat to the floor become the loud cannon reports from nearby prison ships. Books become plates of food, kneaded bread dough, and rustling pages evoke the sound of sleet and rain. The writing desk becomes a children’s slide, and transforms into a boat for the dramatic finale on the River Thames.
It beautifully serves the story, and creates the sense of playfulness and imagination that are trademarks of story-theater.
Rhode’s and Childs Daly’s approach puts the actors front and center, and the MCT cast builds the world of the story with energy and charm. Josh Krause doesn’t call attention to the transformation of Pip as he grows from a near toddler to maturity—it’s a subtle and deft change that holds the child and man in perfect balance. Deborah Staples brings a deep voice and a deep sense of humanity to Miss Havisham, one of Dickens’s greatest creations. Like many of Dickens’s characters, she’s larger than life. But this Havisham is no mere caricature—Staples inflects each gesture with the character’s broken-hearted history.
Chiké Johnson brings similar heart and depth to Joe Gargery, the simple blacksmith who is Pip’s most loyal friend. With a simple gesture of perfectly timed emotion, Johnson makes his goodbye to Pip one of the most heart-stopping moments of the evening. The remaining cast, Karen Estrada, Jonathan Gillard Daly, Zach Thomas Woods and violinist Andrew Crowe, each find moments of wit, humor and humanity as they take the audience on its journey.
It’s a formidable challenge. Dickens’s novel is bursting with ideas, humor, personality, sentiment, and life lessons. Rhode and her cast do more than just bring it to theatrical life. They do so with a playful spirit and skilled sense of story that brings Dickens’s imaginative genius—set down to paper decades ago in that Gads Hill study—to full-blooded life.
Go See It
Great Expectations (April 13-30), Milwaukee Chamber Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway.