In theory, Dickens in America is a crash course in Charles Dickens' life and works for people with short attention spans. Madison Rep's no-frills show lasts not much over an hour and a half and traverses a few of Dickens' standards, with moments of chit-chat about politics and life thrown in for good measure.
The reigning theme of this production is simplicity. The stage is sparsely set. The cast -- if you can call it a cast, it being a one-man show! -- is small. The premise, straightforward: a public reading that might be Dickens' last. He's old and ill and far from home, but determined to give the audience his all, one last time.
Opening night of Dickens in America got off to a slightly rough start. Snowy roads kept some theater-goers home and a half-empty house is never a great confidence builder for an actor. When he first walked onstage as a wild-haired Charles Dickens, James Ridge seemed to need a little convincing, but sometime between The Pickwick Papers and Great Expectations, Ridge completely disappeared. There stood Dickens himself, decked out in a 3-piece suit complete with a red carnation telling stories with the eyes of someone not quite crazy, but not quite sane either.
Ridge also was responsible for animating a slew of Dickens' literary characters -- some known and dear, others a bit more obscure for audience members who may not have dusted off their leather-bound classic collections anytime in recent history. From Hard Times' Sissy Jupe to good ol' Ebenezer Scrooge, Ridge showed an incredible knack for multi-leveled characterization. His task was a hard one. Not only must he re-create Mr. Samuel Pickwick, he has to become Dickens re-creating Mr. Pickwick. This layering of characters was a challenge, but Ridge was able to pull off most character changes with surprising clarity -- and he improved steadily as the show progressed.
At times, though, the characters did get a bit lost, and Dickens' personal anecdotes blurred into his storytelling, but Ridge was dazzling nonetheless. He portrayed Dickens' humor with the precision of a great comic -- the funny parts delivered as perfectly timed punch lines. But what really shone -- both in the actor's performance and in Dickens' writing itself -- were the poignant moments.
Dickens in America presents the writer not only as a literary giant, but as a social commentator and compassionate optimist. We are reminded of Dickens' examination of social issues and his staunch determination in humanizing those who were deemed untouchable by society. The causes championed by Dickens over 150 years ago -- issues of poverty, class, religion, power -- are still relevant today, making this show universal and timeless.
For anyone who thinks A Christmas Carol is a movie that stars Kermit the Frog, this show offers a hasty introduction to one of the most beloved authors of all time. For the better-read, it is a flip through a well-worn book with a good friend leading the way. For all of us, it is a reflection on compassion and social justice.
Dickens in America was written by James DeVita and is directed by C. Michael Wright. It runs through December 9 at The Playhouse in the Overture Center.