Steppenwolf has been making some atypical choices of late. Last year, they premiered their first original musical, The Ballad of Little Jo, and now they've taken on classic literature, with Charles Dickens' David Copperfield. Give the renowned theater company credit for taking on such an immense, multi-layered and faceted work, and presenting it in a fast two and a half hours. Director and adapter Giles Havergal has accomplished an amazing feat, managing to capture the flavor and story of Dickens' own portrait of the artist as a young man, without losing any of the immediacy, message, and intricate plotting of the novel.
The play opens with the entire ensemble onstage, a chorus of voices calling out in a montage of nomenclature: the names by which young Master and then Mister Copperfield has been known by: David, Davey, Toby, Daisy—It's a splendid, gripping way to introduce the cast and demonstrate how David Copperfield's life has touched the lives of so many other people. Like Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, David Copperfield is a memory play, narrated by the amazing Jim True Frost, as the elder Copperfield, looking back over his life, from birth to his emergence as both a mature man and an artist: a writer to be reckoned with. The story is a familiar one, bouncing from locales in London, Canterbury, Dover and Great Yarmouth, as Copperfield matures, suffering the loss of his mother and the first woman he loved, the cruel tutelage of his stepfather, the ambitious, shady dealings of the villainous Uriah Heep, and the warmth and surrogate family love of Miss Peggoty and her seafaring family. The set design, by Kate Edmunds, is inspired and simple: a large wooden circle, with a sky backdrop, serves as the grounding for the events that shape Copperfield's life. The simplicity of the set lets the story take center stage, and its circular design is symbolic of the cyclical passage of time. Adapter Havergal has made wise choices in condensing the epic novel, avoiding the pitfall of falling into a Readers' Digest condensed version of the story, while managing to retain the texture, flavor and major events of Dickens' bildings roman. If David Copperfield is any indication of what the team at Steppenwolf can do with works of classic literature, we have much to look forward to.
The cast, as one might expect from one of Chicago's foremost theatrical venues, is simply marvelous. Particularly outstanding was Molly Regan, as Copperfield's stern, but loving Aunt Betsey. Chirping and fluttering about the stage like a magpie, Regan creates an astonishingly complete character, convincing in every choice she makes. Jay Whittaker, as the evil Uriah Heep, also pulls off an amazing characterization, using both his voice and physicality to create a fully formed fulcrum for deceit and blind ambition. Ryan Rentmeester, as the young David, making his Steppenwolf debut after just graduating from DePaul, carries the weight of the role with dignity, depth and inspiration. Expect to see much more fine work from this capable young actor. I regret that space considerations prevent me from singling out the rest of the cast, who bring Dickens' work to life with such amazing talent. Virgil C. Johnson's costume design and the work of composer Joe Cerqua also added to a wonderfully complete rendering of one of the English language's finest author's greatest work.
If you love the work of Dickens, who knew what telling a good story was all about, don't miss this seamlessly perfect work by some of Chicago's most talented artists.