Kelsey holds a BFA in Theatre Studies and a BS in Cinema/Media Studies from the U of I in Champaign-Urbana. She's a freelance dramaturg, most recently working with Circle Theatre's Venus in Fur. Kelsey believes in theater's ability to change the world. A mix of wit and lit.
Pictured: Nathan Hosner, Raymond Fox, JJ Phillips, Cordelia Dewdney, Audrey Anderson, and Raphael Cruz. Photo by Liz Lauren.
By Kelsey McGrath
Lookingglass Theatre Company’s current production of HARD TIMES FOR THESE TIMES was originally produced in 2001. To kick off its 30th Anniversary Season, the company remounts the show in association with The Actors Gymnasium as a bridge between “then and now.” Adaptor and director Heidi Stillman advocates for the show’s timelessness and rebirth in the current Lookingglass space:
“Work is taking over our lives: the pressures of productivity and capitalism overwhelming, and even the privileged among us are yolked to our work. We are never away from it. The divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is still mighty wide, and the issues of utility versus beauty, facts and figures versus imagination, and the rational versus the irrational are present in America today as they were in Dickens’ time.”
Which, on its own, is a completely agreeable and relatable sentiment, especially nowadays when most folks work multiple hustles to make ends meet and have to crowdsource funerals and essential medical procedures.
However, this reviewer asks, “Why do we need another Charles Dickens adaptation in 2017?”
HARD TIMES dates itself in this regard. Rather than exploring contrasting lives fractured by capitalism, the story really only follows the “haves” whose solutions and pressures aren’t translatable to modern times. For example, Louisa, the educated, 20-year-old decides to make her brother Tom’s life easier by marrying Josiah Bounderby, a wealthy gentleman twice her age. Her marriage is (shockingly) unhappy. She then falls in love with Mr. Harthouse, a member of parliament and friend of her father. Their forbidden affair is discovered by Mrs. Sparsit who immediately tattles. Additionally, Louisa’s brother, Tom, obtains a position at Boundary’s bank, but he doesn’t really work. Instead, he gambles and ends up so deep in debt he robs the bank.
It’s difficult for me to see how this is urgent in 2017.
Stephen, on the other hand, is a “have-not” weaver whose story is never completely fleshed out. We also know that Tom pays Stephen to help with the robbery. Stephen also dies in the end. So what I’m missing here is the part where the “haves” are working and grappling with the pressures of productivity. Because here, they don’t. The fact that poor people are dying is relatable to 2017. But that’s not what this story is about. It’s a drawing room play. But what are we gaining by telling this story? In empathy? In truth?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that the marketing and use of circus were misleading in this production. We see Sissy on advertisements and materials as if this was her story, but it’s not. Not really. Coming from a circus family, Sissy is used as a device to introduce a different perspective to Louisa and her “have” family. But, they are the saviors and adopt her into their home and provide a “civilized” education. She’s a device to help Louisa. And although the circus component was a main selling point for this show, it’s razzle dazzle. We don’t get to know these “have-not” characters or their hardships; they’re entertainment. At the end, Tom escapes to the circus and becomes a clown to avoid getting in trouble for robbing the bank. And he’s able to because he’s a “have.”
I had a conversation following the show with my friend who’s in a different age demographic. She argued the relevance of Dickens’ commentary, “If Dickens has a truth to tell, we’re honoring that with this story.” But why are we telling Dickens’ truth again and why now? Why is his commentary so important, so pressing, that it deserves a timelessness paralleled to Shakespeare? Even with Shakespeare, we make more of an effort for his stories to be told in new and innovative ways. To have a nearly all-white cast perform the three-hour soap opera that is HARD TIMES where every woman has an emotional breakdown and the principle “have not” dies, my accolades are withheld.
HARD TIMES is an absolutely beautiful show. The acting is incredible. The production value is out of this world. But HARD TIMES is not for these times.
HARD TIMES FOR THESE TIMES runs through January 14th. For more information, visit lookingglasstheatre.org.