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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Great Expectations and The Glass Menagerie

Also see Kelly's review of Thoroughly Modern Millie


Doug Hara, Josh Carpenter, Lindsay Smiling, and Sally Mercer
As the Arden Theatre's adaptation of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations gets under way, we see the hero, Pip, in a dark, forbidding cemetery, visiting his parents' graves. The air is dense with fog.

By the end of the scene, the fog lifts. But the show still seems dense—overstuffed with story, characters, and ideas. It's an entertaining show; Gale Childs Daly's script does a pretty good job of condensing the epic story. And Matthew Decker's direction tells the story with an abundance of clarity; even when the actors switch characters, it's always clear who's who. But while it runs just slightly over two hours (including an intermission), Great Expectations feels longer. That's because it sprints from scene to scene, cramming in as many details from Dickens' 1861 novel as possible. It's colorful, classy, and exceptionally well done ... but it's also a tad exhausting.

Great Expectations follows Pip—played by Josh Carpenter in a warm, thoroughly empathetic performance—from a childhood to adulthood, from poverty to ... well, if everything works out the way he expects, perhaps wealth. Part of what makes Dickens' novel so good are the indelible and intriguing characters that Pip meets—people like the imperious attorney Mr. Jaggers and the crude convict Magwitch. The Arden's Great Expectations not only brings those two disparate characters to life, it has them both portrayed by the same actor, using appropriate costumes and accents to distinguish them.

The five actors in the supporting cast play dozens of roles, and they're all remarkably versatile. Brian McCann plays Jaggers and Magwitch; Lindsay Smiling shines as Pip's bashful and proud guardian; Sally Mercer is the mysterious and ghostly Miss Havisham; Doug Hara is the jovial sidekick Herbert Pocket; and Kate Czajkowski is the warmhearted maid Biddy and the coldhearted dream girl Estella. (Daly did not make any plot changes, but Miss Havisham's intentions are revealed much earlier here than they are in the novel. This casts much of the subsequent action in a different light.)

The costumes (by Olivera Gajic), sets (Timothy R. Mackabee), and lighting (Thom Weaver) create a suitably lush environment. And Decker has some fun with his staging, adding some wonderful comic moments. But too much of the story is told at a breakneck pace, which becomes wearying. And the story's twin climaxes—one involving Magwitch, the other involving Miss Havisham—fizzle out: Magwitch's story is resolved offstage, while Miss Havisham's big scene is staged unsatisfyingly. Telling the story isn't enough—sometimes you need to show the story, too.

The Arden's Great Expectations has a lot to enjoy, but despite the heartfelt and wide-ranging performances, it doesn't quite soar the way it should.

Great Expectations runs through December 14, 2014, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $36-$50 (with discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, or online at www.ArdenTheatre.org.



Carla Belver and Amanda Schoonover
The Glass Menagerie is one of the most durable plays in American drama, and Act II Playhouse's new production serves it well. Even in a low-key production like this one, Tennessee Williams' masterpiece remains engrossing and touching.

Carla Belver is the faded and deluded Amanda Wingfield, constantly reliving her past glories and unable to realize how destructive her obsessions are. Amanda Schoonover is her fragile daughter Laura, crippled both by a weak leg and by agonizing shyness, and Charlie DelMarcelle is the restless son Tom, desperate to escape his stifling surroundings but haunted by guilt and a sense of duty. Belver and DelMarcelle are excellent: she's surprisingly sympathetic, and he's bursting with rage and frustration. Director James J. Christy's sensitive production fares best during their tense confrontations. But Schoonover seems too tentative, with a limp that comes and goes. Sean Bradley is sunny, slick and amiable as the Gentleman Caller who gives Laura's bleak life one brief moment of hope.

James Leitner's evocative lighting and Daniel Boylen's sparse set add to the show's dreamlike nature (although the movie poster-sized photo of Amanda's absent husband hanging on the family's living room wall seems almost ridiculously overdone in such an otherwise subtle show). Frankie Fehr's costumes are perfect for the characters, especially Amanda's cotillion dress, which looks like it's been hanging in storage since the Andrew Jackson administration. It's funny and sad all at once—just like so much of this quiet gem of a production.

The Glass Menagerie runs through November 23, 2014, at Act II Playhouse, 56 East Butler Avenue, Ambler, Pennsylvania. Tickets are $24 - $35, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-654-0200 or online at www.Act2.org.


Photos: Photo by Mark Garvin


-- Tim Dunleavy



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