Dickens’ famous tale meets the American dream in this play by The Assembly.
Photo by Nick Benacerraf
London in 1861, when Charles Dickens wrote Great Expectations, was a vastly different world from New York City today. And yet, it is amazing how much of its commentary on class divisions and overcoming one's childhood economic status is still relevant today. The Assembly's new adaptation of the novel, That Poor Dream, places the tale on a Metro-North train heading from Grand Central to Fairfield, CT, as Pip finally meets the wealthy benefactor who gave him a better life and recounts how his life has changed.
That Poor Dream opens on a furious young Philip Pirrip, better known as Pip, boarding a beaten-up old train while leaving a message for a woman who clearly does not want to talk to him, and soon we find out why--he's been stood up. A second passenger arrives, an older man who shows an unusual degree of interest in Pip's life, and before long the truth is out. This is Magwitch, the man who seven-year-old Pip had once hidden from the police in his garage, and we discover, the man who gifted him with a full scholarship to Columbia and a new life among the wealthy elite of New York.
As Magwitch tries to discern what Pip has done with his new life after being rescued from poverty, Pip's memories come to life in the empty train car. From his strained childhood friendship with Estella that has blossomed into love to his faltering relationship with Joe, the brother-in-law who raised him and stayed behind in working class Connecticut, it becomes clear that Magwitch's gift has caused as many problems as it solved. It also soon becomes evident that Magwitch's own story is far more sinister than it once appeared.
That Poor Dream is the perfect in medias res play; Pip's tale is all the more interesting once we've seen how the money has changed him. This standard set-up of two strangers trapped in a confined space together becomes far more, as all of the other important people in Pip's life join them in his tormented isolation, unsolvable with any amount of money.
In fact, for a play based on a 19th century Dickens story, the play makes quite a few references to "the American dream," and the difference between old and new money evident in Pip's rivalry with Bentley Drummle is clearly still relevant today. The terror of falling back into the working class underlies everything Pip says and does, as his discomfort living in the world of the wealthy grows.
Edward Bauer as Pip is both an entitled brat and a completely relatable, awkward young man, unable even with unlimited wealth to win over his childhood love. Estella, played by Jocelyn Kuritsky, is proud and distant but likable despite herself; just like Pip and every other person in his life, she is tormented by and trying to escape the environment she was raised in. Though I am not quite sure of the reasons behind the decision to cast a man as Estella's adoptive mother Miss Havisham, T. Ray Campbell pulls off the emotionally distant and manipulative character well.
Perhaps most fascinating was the remarkable openness and normality of the mastermind behind Pip's life journey, Magwitch, played by Terrell Wheeler. His calm, straightforward attitude makes the crimes he has committed and the fortune he has somehow acquired all the more alluring. I wanted to know more about every character's story by the end of the play, not because the piece wasn't enough, but because the story clearly contains so much more than what Pip has seen.
One cannot speak about this play, of course, without mentioning the immensely clever set and video design, by Nick Benacerraf and Ray Sun, respectively. Not only is the set a faithful reproduction of a slightly beaten up train car, demonstrating how class distinctions can almost vanish when people are confined together on public transit, but the video screens representing the windows provide a view of the changing Connecticut scenery throughout the entire performance. When that landscape is broken, during the surreal sequences with Miss Havisham, for instance, or at the nightclub with Estella, that sense of place becomes even more transient.
That Poor Dream is fairly faithful to the plot of Great Expectations, but rather than leaving the audience with an unsatisfying ending, the Assembly takes a personal approach to their text. These individual stories not only relate Pip's unbelievable story of unexpected wealth to more everyday experiences of economic difficulty and family troubles, but they also expand the play beyond Charles Dickens and into a way of interpreting the world we experience in our own lives. The Assembly is a collective of multi-disciplinary performance artists who wrote the play together, and that sense of collective storytelling makes That Poor Dream far more than a play about two men with a shared history who meet in a train car.
If the Assembly has proven one thing, it's that adaptations of classic novels certainly don't have to be boring or predictable. That Poor Dream has a creative energy about it that makes for an entertaining and thought-provoking play. You don't need to know Dickens to understand or appreciate the piece; in either case, you will leave the play wanting more.
That Poor Dream plays at the New Ohio Theatre through October 26. For more information, check out their website.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.