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Dickens for our times

The program for the Pearl Theatre Company's graceful production of Charles Dickens' "Hard Times" gives the show a parenthetical subtitle the great author never thought of. They're calling Stephen Jeffrey's six-actor adaptation of the novel "Hard Times (For Our Times.")

Apt though it may be, the subtitle is superfluous, since portions of the audience are probably already thinking along those lines because of the ever-present theme of the characters' severe need for money in depressed times.

Asking a mere half-dozen actors to portray more than four times that many characters is a neat trick, and director J.R.Sullivan pulls it off with style and energy, despite the fact that, clocking in at a little over three hours, his show at times feels just a little long.

Jeffrey's version of "Hard Times," which Dickens published in 1854, isn't new, having been written some years ago and subsequently performed widely around the country. Some of the costumes used in the Pearl version have, in fact, been rented from various regional theater stagings. The Pearl first staged the play in 1997, with just four actors playing the twenty-plus roles required by the adaptation.

This is Dickens delivered in a style that is a modest equivalent of the great British production of "Nicholas Nickleby" a couple of decades ago. "Hard Times," with or without the subtitle, suffers somewhat from the novel's relative unfamiliarity, and from the fact that the story lacks compelling central characters to match Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and myriad others.

Despite being set in Coketown, a small industrial city which was once a coal-mining center, Dickens' tale is located in a district later mainly devoted to weaving, with one of the primary locations being Mr. Bounderby's establishment. Jo Winiarski's imaginative scenic design is a creature of battered brick, distressed wooden surfaces and dusty windowpanes, altogether suggesting a space about to be brought to fresh life by the actors working their way through the book's detailed plotlines.

Stenciled on the set's expansive brick back wall, barely perceptible but still vaguely visible under the stage lights, are the first few letters of the name of the factory's owner, Bounderby.

If "Hard Times" has a central core, it is the story of Louisa Gradgrind, who comes as close as the book ever gets to coming up with a conventionally hard-pressed Dickensian heroine. Raised from childhood to shun emotion and deny passion, Louisa is more than a little reminiscent of the beautiful Estella of "Great Expectations."

The six actors involved in "Hard Times" are all Pearl company members, comfortably accustomed to working together. Sullivan's actors, T.J. Edwards, Jolly Abraham, Bradford Cover, Sean McNall, Rachel Botchan and Robin Leslie Brown, are excellent start to finish, playing together with unfailing precision and split-second timing.

"Hard Times" was an ambitious, even risky choice on the Pearl's part, but the gamble has paid off abundantly.

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