Great Expectations was the thirteenth novel by Charles Dickens and, to this day, it’s widely considered his finest work. Dickens began writing it in October 1860 and first published it serially in All the Year Round from December 1860 until August 1861.
Despite the novel’s epic scope and brooding introspection, there are at least 30 different adaptations of the story for stage and film. From March 19 through the 29th, Douglas County Historical Society staged a variation on the stage version by Marion L. Johnson.
[Author’s disclosure: I am the Executive Director of the Douglas County Historical Society, but I was not involved with this show, which was produced by Theatre and Events Director Kathy Laakso.]
Photo courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society
Pip (Kjell Hinkel) reunites with Estella (Kyra Helberg) in the ruins of Satis House during the final scene of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.
The Johnson adaptation is abridged, but familiar. While visiting the grave of his parents, orphan Pip (Kjell Hinkel) is accosted by an escaped convict (Richard Stevens).
Pip brings the convict some food and, in exchange for this kindness, the convict takes the blame when Pip is accused of stealing from his kindly guardian, blacksmith Joe Gargery (Adam McGrath) and Joe’s harridan of a wife, who is also Pip’s sister (Morgan Coleman).
Summoned to the crumbling mansion of the eccentric Miss Havisham (Kathy Laakso), Pip falls instantly in love with Havisham’s sharp-tongued adopted daughter, Estella (Kyra Helberg). Though Estella heaps abuse on him, Pip is smitten, finally winning a kiss from her after beating Herbert Pocket (Jason Wall) in a fistfight.
Despite warnings from his childhood friend, Biddy (Jennifer Martin-Romme), and Biddy’s theatrical uncle, Mr. Wopsle (Don Johnson), Pip fiercely wishes to become a gentleman and win the admiration of Estella.
One night, they are visited by Mr. Jaggers (James Walsh), a powerful attorney, who informs Pip that an anonymous benefactor has provided for his education in London, where Pip’s world is upended when Estella marries the brutish Bentley Drummle (Zach Davis).
Director Jean Sramek assembled a talented local cast. Hinkel excels in the demanding role of Pip, delivering each line and responding to the rest of the ensemble in a fresh and believable way, as if all these events are happening to him for the first time.
Laakso brings a delicate touch to a role that could easily be overacted, showing us the loony side of Havisham—a woman for whom all time stopped when she was abandoned at the altar, now decades later still wearing her wedding gown as her bride cake rots on the table—while also revealing Havisham as a wounded and fragile mother, loving Estella in the only way she knows how.
The wide variety of scene locations were staged well by Victoria Main, who opted to avoid elaborate set changes by utilizing the entire front of the theater space.
Sound and lighting by Ed Johnson help the transition between scenes with music from Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Johnson designed lighting for the fiery destruction of the mansion as well as the intricately detailed bride cake.
Costume design by Jane Wester-Treakle makes each character unique, while, onstage, Wester-Treakle and Richard Thomas steal their scenes as Havisham’s comically scheming cousins, Raymond and Camilla.
Although by the time you are reading this, Great Expectations will have closed, it was a fine example of History Theatre as a performance art tool for preserving and interpreting our shared legacy.