“Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens is a grand novel. And it grandly fills the stage of the Bowmer Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
In a new adaptation by Penny Metropulos and Linda Alper, poor orphaned Pip, traumatized by a childhood encounter with an escaped convict, struggles throughout his youth to attain the lofty position of gentleman. He believes that if he were rich and cultivated, the icy but beautiful Estella might love him.
As directed by Metropulos, the episodic action of the book flows smoothly onstage, with a single rough-hewn set, evocative lighting, and furniture that seems to appear by magic.
The focus is on language and character as various narrators take turns setting each scene in prose adapted from the book. Both the prose and the dialogue are largely faithful to the original. A few subplots have been deleted to hold the play at three hours, which seems to be the maximum length at the festival in most cases.
Pip, played as an earnest young man by Benjamin Bonenfant, must undergo a difficult hero’s journey, suffering poverty, cruel treatment and painful surprises. When he encounters unexpected kindness, he discovers his own growing sense of tolerance. Pip is a hero not as a leader who changes the world, but as a good person who recognizes true virtue.
He gradually stops being ashamed of his sister’s humble spouse, played movingly by Al Espinosa. He comprehends that the terrifying Miss Havisham, perfectly portrayed by Judith-Marie Bergan, has suffered greatly. He even learns to feel pity for the convict Magwitch, a tragic figure as depicted by Derrick Lee Weeden.
Nobody in “Great Expectations” has an easy life. A few, including the attorney’s clerk Wemmick, played with charming sweetness by Richard Howard, have the grace to make the best of their circumstances and find happiness in the smallest of life’s pleasures.
Dickens’ classic tale is so rich and compelling that it stays with us over the years and embeds itself in our psyche. To see it enacted onstage in this fine production is a satisfying gift.