Contrary to popular belief, Proctor & Gamble did not invent the soap opera. The genre was alive and well at least a century and a half ago, and propagated by the likes of such muckraking novelists as Charles Dickens. Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, A Tale of Two Cities, The Old Curiosity Shop – Dickens created a world of sharply divided classes, peopled by arch-typical heroes and villains, with plots thick enough to put Aaron Spelling to shame. From the idle rich to down-trodden street urchins, from the opulent to squalid, from the virtuous to the vile, Dickens’ vision of social injustice and man’s inhumanity to man struck a chord in his own time, and continues to reverberate in countless English Lit classes across America today.
Perhaps Dickens’ best-loved work was his novel, Great Expectations. Adapted for the stage by Barbara Field, and staged by Trevecca Nazarene University’s drama department, Great Expectations is a rags-to-riches-to-rags story of murder, greed, revenge, and unrequited love. An ambitious two-act play that runs a good three hours, Great Expectations follows the adventures of the orphan, Pip, a young blacksmith’s apprentice (played admirably by Michael Durham). Raised by his harsh, shrewish, and much older sister (Melissa Fox) and her kindly blacksmith husband (David Patrick), Pip is decided poor and content to be so. His life is radically changed by two seemingly disparate events – his encounter with the escaped convict, Magwich (Jeffery Greaser) and his selection as a playmate for the Estella (Cameron Foltz), the adopted daughter of the wealthy, eccentric spinster, Miss Havisham (Rachael Parker).
As Pip (Justin McDonald) grows to manhood he is approached by a slimy lawyer (some things, it seems never change) and informed that he is a man with “great expectations.” An unknown benefactor will provide him with the funds he need to become a gentleman. He leaves the forge for the city where he is groomed for his new situation while he awaits his majority and the revelation of his benefactor. Pip is convinced his benefactor is Miss Havisham who obviously intends for him to wed the now fully-grown and beautiful Estella (Hannah Reynard).
Pip’s roommate in the city is the Herbert Pocket (Nathan Owen), a relative of Miss Havisham. Herbert is a truly decent man, but without any expectations, great or otherwise. Knowing his friend would be too proud to accept charity, Pip secretly contrives to have half of his fortune used to secure a partnership for Herbert. Pip continues to court the beautiful, but cold-hearted Estella, but without success. It is eventually revealed to him that is benefactor is not Miss Havisham, but the escaped convict, Magwich. Pip unravels the tragic secrets that intertwine the fates of Miss Havisham, Magwich, Estella, and Herbert. In the end, Pip loses his great expectations, and is reduced to working as a clerk for his friend, Herbert.
Justin McDonald plays Pip with a bemused, Hugh Grant confusion that is endearing and effective. Rachael Parker’s Miss Havisham is decided wicked, delighting the discomfiture of the entire male sex. She has an evil laugh that will send shivers down your spine. David Patrick plays Joe, the blacksmith, with dignity and humanity. Nathan Owen gives the most fully developed performance in the play, endowing Herbert with a range of emotions, drives and desires. Mr. Owen also plays the Aged Parent, a role that allows him to provide some comic relief. His scene with the sausage is a hoot!
Great Expectations is an ambition production that features a fine ensemble cast. But while it is admirably staged and bravely acted, it is not a perfect play. At three hours, it is about a half-hour too long, and the second act tended to drag a bit. The cast was called on to make the enormous amount of set changes (at least 23 different scenes with many repeats) which further slowed the show’s pacing. And the escape scene, a boat chase that was impossible to stage effectively, should have been cut altogether.
The Department of Communications Studies & The Cultural Arts Series presents Great Expectations at Trevecca Nazarene University’s Benson Auditorium February 22-24 and March 1-3.
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