An opening theatrical flourish gives theatergoers reason to hope that the show might engage imaginations and hearts when the six-member ensemble recites short phrases from Dickens' narrative, colorfully bringing the grimy fictional mill city of Coketown to life. But after this beginning, Stephen Jeffreys' adaptation and director J.R. Sullivan's consistently lucid production settle into a story theater-like mode of dramatizing the book with short sections of Dickens' prose providing transitions and advancing the plot between scenes. The conceit gives the production a numbing repetitive quality that's only alleviated by some highly animated, carefully-crafted performances.
T.J. Edwards gets the show off to an electrifying start with his frighteningly booming portrayal of Mr. Gradgrind, a schoolteacher who believes that matters of the head and not the heart should rule people's lives. He has raised his children Louisa (Rachel Botchan) and Tom (Sean McNall) with this maxim, meaning they've grown up without any warmth or fantasy life.
Both performers offer fine turns in these roles, and McNall is affecting once Tom's careful upbringing has given way to dissipation; meanwhile, Botchan errs on the side of breathy earnestness early on, but once Louisa has consented to marry Josiah Bounderby (Bradford Cover), a blustering, self-absorbed business magnate, her portrait of Louisa deepens. Ultimately, though, it gives way to melodrama when she confronts her father about her upbringing and the mistake that she's made in her marriage.
She realizes this both because of her friendship with the dilettante Harthouse (also played by Cover in a cunning bit of double casting), and through her acquaintance with Stephen Blackpool (Edwards), a worker at the mill whose unhappy life intersects with all of the principal characters. As this latter character, Edwards delivers a performance of warm humility. And as the two men in Louisa's life, Cover deftly alternates between Bouderby's argumentative, self-satisfied bluster and Harthouse's smooth glibness.
Equally impressive is Robin Leslie Brown, who brings fading grandeur and comic sarcasm to her turn as Mrs. Sparsit, Bounderby's hawkish housekeeper, and the actress imbues Rachel, the factory worker whom Stephen loves but cannot marry, with genuine sweetness. Unfortunately, when Mrs. Sparsit runs off in pursuit of Louisa, whom the elder woman believes is eloping with Harthouse, Brown finds herself in one of the show's most awkward sequences, which, in its fussiness, never captures the novel's rapid fire excitement. Jolly Abraham rounds out the company, primarily playing Sissy Jupe, the child of a circus worker whom Gradgrind takes in to prove his theories of education.
Sullivan's production unfolds in what looks like an abandoned factory (scenic design by Jo Winiarski). Using just the few pieces of furniture at hand and some colorful costume pieces from designer Devon Painter, the ensemble shifts characters and locales easily, but there's rarely any magic to this work. It's the sort of staging that would make Mr. Gradgrind proud.