There are enough minor problems with BYU’s production of “Great Expectations” to prevent one from loving it. There are not enough of them, however, to keep you from liking it. Liking it a lot, even. It is appealing in an Every-Man sort of way, theatrical but not stuffy, and it tells Charles Dickens’ story with style and energy.
Adapted for the stage by Barbara Field and directed by Eric Samuelsen, the play moves quickly, with a few portable chairs and tables representing the many locales of 19th-century England. A garden is represented, amusingly, by a single flowerpot, and a rat puppet crawls around Miss Havisham’s wedding cake, manipulated by an actor who barely hides himself. Most actors play more than one role and also serve as narrators. They also provide sound effects, sometimes.
These conventions, however theatrical they may be, do not keep the play from capturing its audience and transporting it to another time and place. Alas, the narration, which is abundant, often has the opposite effect. It is given in American accents, which sound jarring and coarse next to the British heard in the rest of the play. Nearly every time a narrator speaks, it jolts us out of London and back to the Pardoe Theatre.
Furthermore, there is not always enough distinction made between characters played by the same actor. It is usually context, not voice or costume, that sets them apart. There is one awkward moment when a fast costume change makes it seem like Jaggers and Compeyson are the same person, which is not the case.
But never mind. If you have not read “Great Expectations” since high school, you may have forgotten how dark it is, and how funny it can be, and how touchingly odd the characters are. Those attributes are in full force in this production, which highlights the evolution of the central characters as much as the intricate plot.
Doug Kaufman plays Pip, the orphan boy raised by his abusive older sister (Michelle Gibbs) and kindly brother-in-law, Joe (Conrad Pack). Pip is a pawn for the longest time, manipulated by a convict (Robert J. Gibbs), by Miss Havisham (Nola Smith), by Estella (Amanda Scheffer), and by anyone else who can get their hands on him. By the time he begins acting for himself, it is only to be ungrateful and selfish toward nearly everyone who loves him. Then there is growth, refining and, ultimately, redemption — all played respectably by Kaufman, who manages to hold his own in a sea of characters more colorful than Pip.
Amanda Scheffer’s Estella is utterly unlovable, which may be the point: Pip, our protagonist, isn’t that great a guy, either. Dickens wrote two different endings — one where they wind up together and one where they don’t — and this script choses the outcome that is, in my opinion, less justified by the events leading up to it.
Among the other performances, Conrad Pack stands out as Joe the blacksmith — his relationship with Pip seems particularly heartfelt — as does Tony Gunn as Pip’s eager friend Herbert Pocket. Benjamin N. Hess is droll as the all-business Jaggers, and Nola Smith is downright creepy as Miss Havisham.
Should you go? It is flawed, but at times it is great indeed.
Just nine months earlier, I'd been in a production of "Great Expectations," though with a different script. As always, it's fun to see how other people interpret lines and characters differently.