The odds against such a drastic distillation of the renowned Victorian novel succeeding would seem great, but playwright Bathsheba Doran has trimmed Dickens' 59 chapters to a compact, completely enjoyable 80-minute piece. It's very different, needless to say, from the Royal Shakespeare Company's brilliant, eight-hour version of the Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby; but in its modest way, it offers some of the cheerful rewards. Think of the production as a particularly intelligent Classics Comics edition springing to spirited life.
For her adaptation, Doran retains only Dickens' basic plot. Poor Philip "Pip" Pirrip (Christian Campbell), who's been raised by his hard-nosed sister (Kristen Bush) and jolly blacksmith brother-in-law Joe Gargery (Paul Niebanck), unexpectedly comes into a fortune and morphs into a London gentleman. His good luck occurs only after he has aided escaped convict Abel Magwich (Armand Anthony) and then, later, is retained by the bitter, jilted bride Miss Havisham (Kathleen Chalfant) to be a playmate for her hard-hearted daughter Estella (Bush again).
The downside of Pip's luck is that he becomes ashamed of his humble beginnings, an attitude he must eventually overcome. The novel, which was first serialized in 1860, is considered to be autobiographical, so the often-moralizing Dickens may have addressed this particular moral lesson as much to himself as to his readers.
Part of the allure of tackling a project as daunting as a stage version of Great Expectations is the challenge -- and, really, the fun -- of doing a lot with a little. In that regard, everyone involved here comes through with flying colors. Bright colors, by the way, are largely eschewed by costume and set designer Carol Bailey, who has thrown dun sheets over the furniture and props before Eric Shim's steathily shifting light come up. Only when Pip attends a ball to moon over the aloof Estella does Bailey alter the muted gloom with more striking tints, and only at Miss Havisham's fiery demise does Shim introduce boiling reds.
The seven hearty and kinectic cast members, all of whom double except Campbell, are nimbly directed by Will Pomerantz. Chalfant, in a deteriorating wedding gown and a bedraggled wig designed by Kritian Krail, plays Miss Havisham with relish as a living specter; she also appears briefly as a guest in the ball scene. Bush is so effective as the bickering Mrs. Joe and the icy Estella that the program is needed to confirm that both characters are played by the same person. Niebanck, Anthony, Kenneth Boys, and Emily Donahoe move from role to role with aplomb. Onstage throughout the proceedings, the darkly handsome Campbell is a pip of a Pip, initially humble and shambling and later elegant as a fawn glove.
Now to the less-is-less aspect of the enterprise. Dickens is one of English literature's best prose stylists, and the loss of his descriptions in the transfer from page to stage is no minor deprivation. But since one of TheatreworksUSA's goals is to promote reading, the company's Great Expectation precis is surely meant not as an end in itself but as a delicious appetizer. It serves that purpose beautifully.