“The people must be amused,” slurs the tippling circus-man Sleary in an early scene of the Pearl Theatre Company's current staging of Charles Dickens' Hard Times. If diversion is the goal, the Pearl delivers with this production: Hard Times is solid if not flawless, and its power only grows as the show progresses. Stephen Jeffrey's adaptation of Dickens' sprawling novel portrays a world in which fact is valued over fancy, numbers and tables are preferred over dreams and desires, and the individual's quirky inclinations are stifled in favor of stalwart practicality. Teacher Thomas Gradgrind tries to manufacture students as efficient as the looms in the factory of his industrial-tycoon friend Josiah Bounderby. No hypocrite, Gradgrind raises his own children, Louisa and Tom, on an intellectual diet devoid of fancy.
Far from offering salvation, the fact-based and emotionally devoid world cultivated by Gradgrind is soul-crushing, contributing to the “hard times” of the drama's title. The crux of the plot revolves around Louisa, who enters a loveless marriage with the much-older Bounderby. When she encounters a seductive and sentimental rogue, she starts to suspect how much her father's philosophy has damaged her.
Jeffreys' adaptation is written in the tradition of another famous Dickens adaptation, Nicholas Nickleby, which was seen on Broadway during the 1980s. Winnowing the text down to a still-lengthy three hours, Jeffreys reduces the dramatis personnae to nineteen characters played by six actors. Unfortunately, he also preserves large sections of narrative during which the characters must describe themselves, their settings, and their own actions. While at times effective, the abundance of narrative in the first act leads to pacing problems. Fortunately, by the second act the characters and plot have been firmly established and this flaw in construction is less noticeable.
Artistic director J.R. Sullivan has staged Hard Times well, creating attractive tableaux and an upbeat tempo. He finds both the poignancy and the humor in Dickens' deeply-flawed characters. Sullivan is aided in this by the Pearl's resident actors, who navigate their multiple roles with aplomb. Rachel Botchen as Louisa captures her character's listless depression until she finally explodes in an emotional confrontation with her father (T.J. Edwards). Edwards, who is affecting as Gradgrind, is especially good as the hard-luck hand Stephen Blackpool. Sean McNall is excellent as Tom, the selfish and degenerate brother who brings ruin upon Louisa yet is not without a conscience.
The set design by Jo Winiarski is practical and workmanlike. A wide, thrust-style wood-grained set dappled with concrete slabs and an imposing brick wall emblazoned with Bounderby's name create an appropriately vintage Industrial Age look. Meanwhile, light designer Stephen Petrilli takes advantage of the painted over factory windows and hanging oil lanterns to create some stunningly atmospheric effects. Most of the time, the set design fades into the background, providing a neutral space for the performance, but on occasion, when enhanced by Petrilli's lights, the characters are transported to another world—most strikingly, at the beginning of the second act, when the economically oppressed “hands” hold a union meeting. The attractive costume designs by Devon Painter clearly define each of the characters.
Although the Industrial Age setting seems remote, Hard Times is surprisingly relevant to our current cultural and economic moment. As the divide between the rich and the poor is increasing, the American education system has become obsessively focused on test scores, facts, and memorization. Frivolous subjects like art, theater, and music, which feed the imagination, are increasingly devalued. The Pearl Theatre Company's production of Hard Times forces us to confront the kind of reality this mindset is creating. Is a world without entertainment and fancy tenable? As art institutions shutter across the nation, Dickens' entertainer Sleary pleads, “make the best of us, and not the worst.”
And the people are amused.