I remember having to read Charles Dickens' HARD TIMES as a college freshman. I have never been a Dickens fan. His coincidence-filled stories have never seemed credible to me. His characters are often cardboard. And there's the sentimentality. Give me George Eliot or Anthony Trollope any day but, please, don't make me read Dickens! Yet, over the years, Dickens has been the source of some brilliant theatrical adaptations. The novelist loved theatre and loved the conventions of Victorian drama--or should I say melodrama. His villains are villainous, his heroes and heroines virtuous and beset with troubles they nobly endure. They make fun theatre.
HARD TIMES is a satire on rampant capitalism, utilitarianism and the fact-based education it espoused. Capitalist Mr. Bounderby, who professes to be a proud exemplar of rags-to-riches, is a ruthless materialist. He made his money the hard way and has no sympathy with the rights of his workers. With Bounderby's money Gradgrind has founded a school, run by Mr. McChoakumchild, which offers a totally fact-based education. There is to be no imagination, no creativity, no feeling. During the course of the novel and the play, we watch the effects of this education on Gradgrind's son and daughter and on the ruthless pragmatist, Bitzer. The school is set against a traveling circus where young Sissy was raised until she is taken into the school and into the Gradgrind home. Sissy fails at facts but excels at compassion. Add a noble laborer, his ailing wife and woman friend and you have a celebration of principle over pragmatism. The men are nasty, the women have heart. The play is an entertaining mishmash of story lines and one-dimensional characters. It's also based on Dickens's shortest novel, so easy to condense into two-and-a-half hours of stage time. It also seems particularly timely in the age of Trump. Bounderby's crass, vulgar personality and pride in his ignorance makes him kin to the current President. The current downturn in the popularity of humanities courses shows how "practical" knowledge is prized over creativity. Unlike the workers in HARD TIMES, many in the American working class have chosen to believe the propaganda of the plutocracy.
Adapter and director Heidi Stillman has crafted an absorbing, entertaining theater piece out of HARD TIMES. The excellent circus work is a colorful foil to the polluted air and harsh world of the fictional northern English town in which the play takes place. The cast, most of whom play multiple roles, is uniformly fine. The movement of the simple sets is choreographed to be an essential part of the production. Highly recommended.