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Theater Review:



In grim Industrial Revolution-era England, where human nature was weighed and measured like a parcel, flights of the imagination were stringently kept under wraps. But Charles Dickens’ life-affirming novel, "Hard Times," introduces a young circus girl capable of unleashing genuine emotion from a household buried alive under the pressure of accumulated facts and figures.

The story is an ideal match for Lookingglass Theatre Company’s circus-based aesthetic and commitment to linking classic texts to contemporary issues. Heidi Stillman’s enchanting and pointed stage adaptation of "Hard Times" allows the book to blossom in a magical way without resorting to cartoonish bombast. Stillman also directs a lucid, agile cast skilled at eliciting awe and grace in equal measure from daredevil acrobatic feats and a moving sense of stillness.

These mesmerizing stage pictures emerge as if from a cloud as aerial artists (breathtakingly choreographed by Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi) defy gravity behind a scrim framed against a cold, murky industrialism. Nothing feels creatively retro-fitted; and the production is not encumbered by obvious polarities of heart versus head. Nor does the grayness of the setting choke the life out of those gray ambiguities crucial to a balanced story.

The pure beauty of this staging rests in the seamless flow of each theatrical element – composers/sound designers Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman have crafted a heart-tingling waltz (made all the more piercing and evocative by its off-key, music-box timbre); Daniel Ostling’s movable set suggests a simultaneous jail and jungle gym; Brian Sidney Bembridge’s lighting mirrors the mystery of candles; and Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes weave the pastel confections of circus folk through a battleship gray-fabric landscape to illustrate the gaiety amid the grime.

"Hard Times" centers on the repressive Gradgrind household, run by a patriarch-schoolmaster, Mr. Gradgrind, who subscribes to the belief that "facts alone are wanted in life." He crams his two children’s heads with cold statistics at the expense of the spontaneous joy more creative activities would inspire. His world is slowly turned upside down when he agrees to take in Sissy, a young circus performer deserted by her father.

One of the book’s most tragic figures is Louisa Gradgrind, a pawn in her self-interested brother Tom’s quest for power. She agrees to a ridiculous marriage with the puffed-up, fraudulent Mr. Bounderby (himself "bound" to his self-perpetuated Horatio Alger myth and to his scheming "companion," Mrs. Sparsit).

Bounderby owns the mills where a desperate weaver named Stephen is grievously mistreated. While the weaver subplot sparks one of the work’s central conflicts, it is the only weak link in this near-perfect adaptation – chiefly because it unfolds in colorless fragments not strikingly connected to the main plot.
The entire cast commendably walks a fine line between self-ridicule and gravity – never letting one aspect overpower the other. So Dickens’ wonderfully broad humor and crushing indictments of a soul-less societal order spring off each other in an earnest, unselfconscious way.

In one of the most empowering performances of her career, Louise Lamson as Louisa conveys an unspoken torment through every fiber of her body – most compelling in the scenes when she stares into the fireplace and envisions Sissy soaring on her cloud swing. Joe Sikora’s Tom can strike a daunting emotional blow with the mere turn of his back or a smug grin.

Troy West impressively tones down Mr. Bounderby’s absurd proclamations without diminishing his character’s bloated demeanor. Eva Barr’s Mrs. Sparsit is a gloriously grating foil to Bounderby’s self-absorption. Raymond Fox softly unveils the sympathy and regret behind Mr. Gradgrind’s rigid façade. Lauren Hirte as the irrepressible Sissy imparts her own genuine sense of wonder to the audience.

In multiple roles, Philip R. Smith, Tony Hernandez, David Catlin and Laura Eason boundlessly encapsulate humanity.

Adapter-director Stillman has achieved a great theatrical feat – one that combines ingenuity, precision, vivacity and magic. The three hours seem to evaporate in a breath, and audiences leave in a state of quiet, breathless awe. •

"Hard Times" runs through June 3 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn. Tickets: $25-$28.50. Call 773-477-8088.

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