To Begin With
To Begin With has been written by Twin Cities-based Jeffrey Hatcher, who appears to be almost as prolific a playwright as Dickens was a novelist. In the first act, Hatcher presents the circumstances that led Dickens to write "The Life of Our Lord," along with insights into his temperament and creative process. Dickens and his family are away from London at a rented home on the Isle of Wight, where an outspoken 12-year-old neighbor boy challenges him over both why and how children should be taught Christian lessons. In the second act Dickens overcomes his struggle to find the right voice, and a proper beginning that will hook the listener or reader. Finally, he enacts the story as if he were performing it for his children.
Both acts are highly entertaining. The play is well enough written to be able to imagine it performed by other actors, but there is no denying that the familial connection between this actor and his character deepens our sense of the piece's authenticity. The younger Dickens' portrayal of his illustrious ancestor is rich with nuance, humor, and a generous spirit. He is able to cast aspersions on societal norms, as well as on his 12-year-old nemesis, with barbed wit but also a veil of affection. He speaks to the audience with a voice akin to the narrator in any one of his great novels, crafting exquisitely precise descriptions of people and places, and teases us with sentences that circle around in a wreath of language before revealing their point. Those who prefer their language to be terse and direct may wince at this, but those who love words not only for what they tell us, but for their ability to uplift and delight us, will greatly enjoy To Begin With.
The physical production adds greatly to the piece. The simple setting is Charles Dickens' study with several comfortable-looking pieces of furniturea divan, an overstuffed chair and a tufted ottoman and three tall windows arranged in an arc at the rear. It may not be coincidence that the frames within the windows have the appearance of crosses. The lighting guides us from Mr. Dickens' interior thoughts and moods to his interaction with the world around him. Dickens' costume has the authentic overdone look of a prosperous mid-19th century gentleman. Sounds of children laughing repeatedly remind Dickens and us that though his subject is serious indeed, his intended audience is innocent and light of spirit, so that the finished work that is "The Life of Our Lord" need capture that innocence and light.
One need not be Christian to be moved by the positive lessons and moral nourishment at the heart of Dickens' rendition of the gospels. He relates the gospels as a spell-binding tale, rife with intrigue and mystery, accessible to anyone able to take in a good yarn; but in telling this as a tale for children, Dickens effectively delivers messages that provide inspiration to any age.
To Begin With is a meeting of minds of the author Charles Dickens, the playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, and the actor Charles Gerald Dickens, and the result gives us a glimpse of spirit that transcends the mind, that invokes in us the impulse to live a life that steeped in goodness. A lovely piece of theater!
To Begin With continues at The Music Box Theatre through March 8, 2015. 1407 Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets from $31.00 - $36.00; children and students with valid ID, - $12.00. For tickets call 612-874-1100 or go to musicboxmpls.com.
Writer and Director: Jeffrey Hatcher; Executive Producer: Dennis Babcock; Associate Producer: Rosalie Miller; Scenic and Costume Design: Nayna Ramey; Lighting Design: Michael Klaers; Sound and SFX Design: John Markiewicz; Production Management: Michael Klaers and Benjamin Netzley; Stage Management Team: Benjamin Netzley, Joelle Coutu, Heather Jo Raiter; Production Assistant: Chelsea Babcock.
Cast: Gerald Charles Dickens (Charles Dickens)