The set desginer for Dickens' "Great Expectations" at Everyman Theatre talks about the set for the show. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)
Everyman Theatre to give area premiere of Gale Childs Daly's adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations" with six actors playing three dozen roles.
"Great Expectations," the 1861 Charles Dickens epic of a young boy named Pip who grows into a man after learning many a tough lesson about life, reaches the stage at Everyman Theatre this week in an adaptation that uses six actors to portray three dozen characters.
Guiding the production is the exceptional theater and opera director Tazewell Thompson, who brings to the venture a deeply personal connection.
He first encountered the works of the Victorian novelist while living in a facility for children about 20 miles north of New York City, run by the Sisters of St. Dominic. At the age of 7, he had been placed there by a grandmother after conflicts in his family made it too difficult for him to stay at home.
"We had a couple of nuns who read to us at night," he says, "and that's how I learned Dickens. Some of the boys fell asleep, but I was on the edge of my bed for each night's chapter. I felt just like [Dickens'] readers must have felt, waiting at the news stall for the next chapter to come out [the novel originally appeared in serial form], or like Harry Potter fans lining up at the store for the next book in the series."
The director, who made his Everyman debut two years ago with Lynn Nottage's "Ruined," felt an even stronger bond when he learned that Dickens, as a boy, saw his family sent to debtors' prison, an experience that would haunt many of his novels in one way or another.
"How smart the nuns were," Thompson says. "We were lost boys taken in because our parents could not or would not care for us. Reading Dickens to us was a way to teach us that we had to be tough, that we needed discipline, education and, especially, empathy."
For the director, that last quality looms over all.
"You can be ambitious for self-improvement, and education is key to that," Thompson says. "But so is having a moral center, to be the kind of human being who can see people who have needs and wants just like you. Pip is another name for a seed. He has the ability to blossom and change. But what does one learn going from childhood to maturity?"
Drew Kopas, who plays Pip in the Everyman staging, has been thinking about that question, too.
"We see how Pip goes from a meager, humble experience to becoming a gentleman and rising to another class," the actor says. "Pip reaches higher, but he severely hurts a lot of the people who loved him a great deal, all because of class. There is a lot of selfishness in him. 'Great Expectations' asks: 'Who are you really? Are you capable of understanding others?'"
Pip's long process of self-discovery includes meetings with some of Dickens' most indelible characters. Among them are the spinster Miss Havisham, still wearing the wedding dress from the day she was jilted at the altar; and the escaped convict Magwitch, whose encounter with a young Pip in a churchyard sets the whole story on its intricate path.
"There is a kernel of dignity and goodness in all of Dickens' characters, for the most part," Kopas says, "even Magwitch, who has done terrible things. We can see these redemptive qualities."
Adds Bruce Nelson, who will portray multiple roles in the production: "Dickens shows you the humanity in these characters. He's saying there is more to a person than we may think."
In addition to bringing the colorful people in "Great Expectations" to life, the Everyman production aims to help audiences see Victorian England.
Toward that goal, Thompson engaged Yu-Hsuan Chen as scenic designer. He collaborated with her for the first time two years ago on a production of Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" at New York University, when Chen was a graduate student there. The set for "Great Expectations" is her first major professional engagement.
"One of the challenges is how to [convey] so many locations, indoor and outdoor," says the Taiwan-born Chen, who designed a single, large-scale set for the production. "It is a collage that includes elements of Pip's memory."
The designer took a cue from the aubergine walls inside the Everyman house. Wallpaper in one of the rooms contained in the set is the same color. And the far corners of the set appear to meld into the sides of the theater.
"I hope to pull the audience into the world of Pip," Chen says.
"Pip's journey from the countryside to a big city, London, and how the environment transforms him, is a journey I can relate to," Chen says. "I came from Taipei to New York, which was mind-blowing, an eye-popping new world for me. I can feel for Pip somehow."
To help the five multi-assignment cast members change quickly from character to character, Chen's set includes convenient nooks. Some of the props are hidden onstage, including in a giant grandfather clock (the face of the clock doubles as a moon for a night scene).
Keeping track of which prop to pick up is the trickiest part of performing in what Nelson likens to "running a marathon. Keeping the characters separate is secondary," he says.
Kopas describes the adaptation of "Great Expectations" made by Gale Childs Daly as "spot-on."
"It's almost like the adapter took a PDF of the book," Nelson adds. "She didn't change the words for our ears at all. What I always loved about Dickens was the way he constructed sentences. I used to think that they were so lushly constructed because he was paid by the word, but Tazewell told us that wasn't true."
That richly evocative language can still speak potently.
"I think the story is relevant to what's going on in our world now, which has become so polarized that we have lost the capacity to see the dignity in friends and neighbors," Kopas says.
For Thompson, the contemporary quality of "Great Expectations" makes the Everyman production all the more timely.
"We just saw someone assume power, along with the billionaires surrounding him," the director says. "Dickens tells us power is meaningless if you do not use that power to help others. You have to be empathetic. You have to look at others less fortunate than yourself. If you ignore others because of your vaulting ambition, what kind of person are you?"
After preview performances Tuesday through Thursday, "Great Expectations" opens Friday and runs through March 5 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St. Tickets are $10 to $64. Call 410-752-2208, or go to everymantheatre.org.