“Great Expectations” at Curio Theatre

Charles Dickens asked in his will that no memorials be erected to him and so the life-size sculpture of the author in Clarke Park in West Philadelphia is the only one in the world. But the greatest monument to Dickens can be seen just a few blocks away: a theatrical version of his finest work, Great Expectations, is now onstage at Curio Theatre.

The novel was first published in serial form, and I’ve always imagined readers of the 1860s gathered in a study, listening to the latest installment as it was read out loud. Certainly, the playfully descriptive language and moving dialogue seems to sing with humor when heard through the Curio actors’ mouths. There are dozens of characters in the book, condensed in this  adaption by director Jared Reed to about twenty, performed by six actors. But Dickens was the master of characterization, and each personality is so perfectly captured by their dialogue and action that the cast segues easily from one persona to another (with the help of lightning quick costume changes).

One criticism of Dickens has been the static nature of his characters; his works overflow with lively personalities, but they rarely undergo anything approaching a character arc. Great Expectations provides the finest counterexample to this charge in its central character, Pip (Eric Scotolati). Raised in humble circumstances by his overbearing sister (an excellent Aetna Gallagher) and her long-suffering husband, Joe (Ken Opdenaker), Pip is transformed when he meets the bitter Miss Havisham (also Gallagher) and her gorgeous but cold-hearted adopted daughter, Estella (Rachel Gluck). Newly ashamed of his common background, Pip longs to be a gentleman worthy of his crush. As he stumbles along his path to respectability — with many Dickensian coincidences and plot twists on the way — we see a new maturity and finally humility in the young man.

Reed’s adaptation is not without its flaws. The dialogue is supplemented by generally effective narration, but it must have been difficult to cut any of Dickens’s language, and too often the characters or narrators are describing onstage action which we are already witnessing. Also, although the condensed and convoluted plot was easily understandable to a fan of the book, I wondered if a novice would be a little lost.

Nevertheless, the simple stage (four plain benches, design by Paul Kuhn) is so well utilized and lit (Andrew Cowles) that we are seamlessly transported into the world of nineteenth century England. And in an impressive acting marathon (he’s onstage for almost the entire two-and-a-half hours), Scotolati brings to life a convincing Pip, every bit the approachable but flawed everyman I imagined.

As Dickens originally intended, Great Expectations ends with a view of an Estella whose unfortunate life has left her with emotional scars similar to those she inflicted upon poor Pip. His publisher rejected this ending, and Dickens composed a Hollywood-style happily-ever-after for the couple. This is the ending that Reed chose for his adaption, and though it ends with a romantic line as beautiful as any in our language, it grates as much on stage as on the page. Estella, you don’t deserve him.

Great Expectations
by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jared Reed
Through March 5th
Curio Theatre Company 

 Published by PhilaCulturati.

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