Step back, Scrooge. There's another Dickens hit in town — but only for a few days. Step lively if you want to snag a ducat before it departs.
"Dickens' Women," first performed by star and co-creator Miriam Margolyes in 1989, closes out a monthslong international tour in honor of Charles Dickens' 200th birthday Saturday at Chicago Shakespeare's intimate Upstairs Theater. And though it will surely resonate most strongly with Dickens disciples, Margolyes delivers a cunning, crowd-pleasing and occasionally heartbreaking tour through the distaff gallery of idealized ingenues, wily widows and grotesque gargoyles that fill Dickens' groaning board of Victorian life.
Margolyes (whose screen appearances include the nurse in Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet" and Professor Sprout in the "Harry Potter" franchise) devised this piece in collaboration with director Sonia Fraser. It falls between the high-octane readings Dickens himself delivered to great acclaim and a saucy women's studies lecture. The mix feels a bit self-conscious at points. But it's clear that Margolyes loves Dickens the Writer unreservedly — and is more than a little disgusted by Dickens the Man.
The man turned out his wife, Catherine, after lambasting her in print as an unfit mother and using her younger sister, Mary, who died in his arms, as the model for the saccharine Little Nell of "The Old Curiosity Shop." The unifying thread in "Dickens' Women" — aside from his "icky" idealization of 17-year-old girls — is how he could turn his encomia to the rosy-cheeked, tiny-figured innocence of youth into blistering warts-and-all portraits of women who dared to grow old, rendering their previous alluring naivete as doddering foolishness in his eyes.
Such was the case with his first love, Maria Beadnell, who went from providing the model for charming and mercurial Dora in "David Copperfield" to Flora Finching in "Little Dorrit," who has committed the unforgivable sin of changing from "a lily to a peony."
And so it goes throughout the show. What anchors the whole is Margolyes' cunning shifts from exaggerated caricatures to crystal-clear revelations about the twisted psychological needs that drove Dickens to create his women. Like other men who are public progressives, Dickens remained a chauvinist in his personal life.
Yet the most startling moment in "Dickens' Women" comes when Margolyes stands in stark profile in a single bright light, delivering the painful recollections of Miss Wade (identified by Margolyes as a lesbian), also from "Little Dorrit." As Margolyes' Miss Wade recalls the cruel machinations she endured in youth at the hands of another young woman, it becomes clear that Dickens imbued some of his darkest and most memorable female creations with the same autobiographical unfulfilled longings and resentments that drove his greatest work. Margolyes finds the beating heart underneath the hearty bluster and heartless scheming that so often circumscribes his women.
When: Through Saturday
Where: Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $50-$60 at 312-595-5600 or chicagoshakes.comCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun