Raised in humble circumstances by his surly sister and her blacksmith husband, young Pip nevertheless feels himself called to a higher station in life. The adventure and melodrama awaiting him are made interestingly psychological in the New Hampshire Theatre Project’s deft and evocative ensemble production of Charles Dickens’ classic Great Expectations, its script adapted by Gale Childs Daly for a six-person cast, with the virtuoso Bretton Reis as Pip and five narrators in an epic array of roles apiece, under the direction of Meghann Beauchamp.
The world that young Pip navigates, in his cunning corduroy jacket and cap, is one conjured by the frequent rearrangement of NHTP’s black box, as the ensemble moves around trunks, shelves and benches to create law offices, dining rooms, graveyards and boats. The five excellent “narrators” — Adam LaFamboise, James Stewart, Linette Miles, Molly Dowd Sullivan and Matthew Schofield — slip between characters, make a constant trade of shawls, hats, suits and dresses from a rack onstage. Director Beauchamp maneuvers them kinetically onstage, as when they line up in a slight V downstage and run in place to find Magwitch the convict (LaFamboise, with plenty of Cockney growling in his throat and gleaming in his eye); or create a chaos of grasping, bouncing domestic activity in the child-filled house of Pip’s London tutor (also LaFamboise).
The ensemble members make agile leaps between their sometimes opposite character types — LaFamboise plays both Magwitch and the savvy upper-crust lawyer Jaggers; Sullivan draws a striking contrast between her imperious Estella and her vivaciously sweet Biddy, Pip’s girl-next-door; Miles is fierce as mean Mrs. Joe and haunted as the moth-eaten Miss Havisham. Schofield’s most quietly sympathetic role is his gently burly Joe, Pip’s kindly brother-in-law; and Stewart gets in some great comic relief both as Pip’s wide-eyed, floppily jovial friend Herbert and as a memorably bad actor of Pip’s acquaintance.
As narrators, they trade off lines of prose, plaintively call out at Pip the voices of his inner conscience, and, in a nice touch, often narrate exposition about whomever they’re currently dressed as: “If only Pip could confide in Joe,” narrates Schofield mournfully, shamefully, while wearing the costume of the blacksmith, “but Joe was only a blacksmith, with coarse hands and thick boots.” The effect is an engaging fluidity between narration and character acting, one that draws us intimately and impressionistically into the very sensitive experience of Pip himself.
And as Pip, the long, lean, preternaturally expressive Reis is exceptional. His face, with its dual youth and agelessness, is supremely well-suited for Pip’s range from 6 into young adulthood, and his height lets him tower over Joe and Mrs. Joe even while playing a child, an interesting meta-cue of Pip’s precocious ambitions. Reis expresses Pip’s sensitivity in wonderfully physical ways, his hands running slowly over the surfaces of things, his upper lip curling open in fear as Magwitch threatens him. His frame, limbs and fingers register the slightest caution, fear or shame, as his superb Pip learns the vicissitudes, ironies and tragedies of the class system.
In the lull before the surge of Dickens’s most performed show, it’s good to get another taste of his social consciousness, with its acute observations about how injustice is felt by children, about how we commit our worst offenses “for the sake of the people we most despise.” And finally, true to Dickens, this beautifully wrought Great Expectations is also satisfyingly entertaining – poignant, funny, and exciting – even if we know where Pip’s expectations end.
Great Expectations, adapted from Charles Dickens by Gale Childs Daly. Directed by Meghann Beauchamp. Produced by New Hampshire Theatre Project, in Portsmouth, through December 4. Visit www.nhtheatreproject.org/.