Although the United States and the United Kingdom have been squabbling over terrorist policies and steel tariffs, the Walnut Street Theatre’s current production of “Great Expectations” shows that artistic cooperation across the pond has not changed a bit.
The play is a collaboration between the Walnut and London’s Derby Playhouse. Featuring six British and six American actors, the show ran for a month in London before coming to Philadelphia. The two theaters have previously worked together on two other plays, which also ran in both countries.
The play, written and directed by the Derby’s Artistic Director Mark Clements, is an adaptation of the Charles Dickens book of the same name. “Great Expectations” is the story of a poor boy named Pip who suddenly comes into wealth and then slowly begins to discover the secrets of his past.
During the first act of the play, Pip is a young orphan boy who is being raised by his sister Biddy and her husband Joe. Biddy treats Pip awfully, but Joe and the boy are great friends. When Pip is old enough, Joe begins training him as a blacksmith.
Pip also keeps busy as a companion to Miss Havisham, an old rich woman in his town. During his visits to her estate, he becomes smitten with her young ward, Estella. Estella coldly rejects his affections, except for one kiss after he gets in a fight with a local boy.
After several years pass, Pip suddenly receives the benefit of an anonymous benefactor, who he believes to be Miss Havisham. His subsequent adventures as a newly minted member of the bourgeoisie, whose shadowed past has come into the light, make up the rest of the play.
“Great Expectations” flows smoothly from one story and time period to the next, aided by the narration of the older, middle class version of Pip and an innovative set design. The stage is divided horizontally by a constantly shifting wall that parts to create doorways and moves off completely to reveal large scenes.
The casting for “Great Expectations” was perfect: all of the actors fell convincingly into their roles as 19th century English men and women, so it was nearly impossible to tell the Brits from the Yanks. The middle-schoolers playing the young Pip and Estella, as well as their friend Herbert, acted with maturity that is not seen in most children of their age. Pascal Langsdale, playing the older Pip, gives an incredible performance as the poor boy turned haughty nobleman.
The weak point of “Great Expectations” is the various plot lines that cross paths and become entangled as the story unfolds. This is largely because the play does not offer the benefit of being able to turn pages back to remind yourself who is who. However, Pip’s narration keeps the confusion to a minimum, and the overall story does not become lost in the details.
Clements has crafted a show that may never reach the popularity of the musical “My Fair Lady,” but nevertheless is an inspired piece of drama that stays true Dickens’ vision.
“Great Expectations” will be playing at the Walnut Street Theatre through April 28.
Brian White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org