“Part mystery, part romantic comedy, part moral fable, Our Mutual Friend justly earns its place among Dickens’s most brilliant novels.” With these words, Directors Kelly Newman O’Connor and John O’Connor set the stage for their ambitious and engrossing adaptation of the author’s arguable magnum opus—Dickens’s “last completed masterpiece”—for Lumina Studio Theatre.
The set is simple, the action swift, the characters multitudinous; the stories sociologically tripartite, yet fluidly interlacing. The River Thames flows through the veins of those living on its banks, while the only banks of interest to the self-centered denizens of Dickens’s London society are those for whom the word “vein” is spelled with an “a.” Yet there are also mensches among them, just as there are the mercenary—some of them even murderously—among those who draw life from the river, and are sometimes deposited into its depths in return.
At the heart of the tale is the young heir John Harmon, said to have drowned in the Thames, and the impact of his reported death, and of the fortune he was to have inherited, on the more than thirty people from three social strata—Thames waterside, London society, and working folk—who might benefit from it. In Lumina’s production, the characters are drawn with careful attention to their individuality and humanity (as well as to their real or seeming lack of the latter), the set design, costumes, music and lighting contributing organically, overall, to the effectiveness of the whole.
The sets are basic, but do the job. (After all, when it comes down to it, it’s not elaborate sets we’re looking for, or at, in a mystery cum rom-com cum moral fable; it is, above all, the characters.) At stage right, a set of four graceful ash-gray wood dining-room chairs with upholstered seats are set before a large cream-colored fireplace with coral stone hearth; beside it, a partially filled bookcase. Here, the family dramas will play out. At stage left, the waterside, where a ragged, weatherbeaten wooden fence is offset by a leering skeleton hanging from a post near the front of the stage; behind it, a faded turquoise sign, garishly lit, promotes “MR VENUS – ARTICULATOR OF BONES.”
As the bone man, Ritchie Porter is gleefully Cockney, slippery as a Swanley eel and using his deception skills in ways even the audience won’t suspect. His partner, “social parasite” (per Dickens) Silas Wegg, has a peg-leg that’s strikingly realistic, as is the character’s convincingly crafty portrayal by Lumina’s Artistic and Executive Director, David Minton. Wegg’s scheme is to insinuate himself into the Boffin household on the doubtful premise of teaching Mr Boffin to read (Wegg’s nearly illiterate himself) so that Wegg can use a new Harmon will he found in the dust heaps to blackmail Boffin.
Boffin? He’s the fellow who’s been told he won what to him must be the equivalent of the Powerball: the inheritance that would have gone to young Mr Harmon, were he alive. (The Boffins were beloved—or at least appreciated—by the otherwise misanthropic senior Harmon.) Boffin (Brian Monsell), a portly man with a full grey-blond beard and mustache and a black top hat, is so happily astounded at his good fortune, he immediately offers a £10,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the murderer of the young heir.
Boffin’s ostensible good nature will come into question, however, when Harmon’s fiancée Bella, whom he has welcomed into his household now that her expectations bubble has tragically burst, catches the romantic eye of the handsome young John Rokesmith (a likable, clear-eyed, sympathetic Langston Cotman), whom he has newly engaged as his secretary. Becoming unaccountably bellicose and belligerent, he casts Rokesmith out, his explosive, evilly triumphant laughter accompanied by a melodramatic piano crescendo—Monsell does it so smoothly, he has to be enjoying it—leaving one not knowing whether to laugh, shrink back, or weep.
Bella (a charming Molly Hickman, who in the course of the play adroitly goes from incorrigibly spoiled to sweetly in love), in tears, runs home to the comforting embrace of her loving parents. (Stewart Hickman’s affection is more than actors’ affectation: Molly is his real-life daughter.) As the bespectacled Mrs Boffin, Cassie Gabriel provides a kindly but canny contrast to her blustering husband, her narrowed eyes slyly appraising, but in the end resignedly, almost even affectionately, accepting him.
Back at the river, there’s no accepting Roger “Rogue” Riderhood (Co-Director /Adapter John O’Connor), a rough-hewn, thieving boatman, insufferably arrogant—I’m tempted to say O’Connor chews the scenery, especially as he also designed the sets; bottom line, his characterization draws you in, as with a fisherman’s net—as he loudly accuses Gaffer Hexam (Andy Penn), who found the body (and will shortly become one), of Harmon’s murder. Gaffer has a son, Charley, whose schoolmaster, Bradley Headstone (a frighteningly volatile Michael Novello, his puppy-dog pursuit of the unattainable is almost adorable until it turns terrifying attack-dog), is in love with Charley’s sister Lizzie (a noble, self-effacing, heartbreaking Dre Weeks).
However—so is barrister Eugene Wrayburn (Ian Blackwell Rogers, who invests the character, one of the two so-called “heroes” of the book, with a gentle strength and integrity), who, having met Lizzie by chance and finding himself unable to forget her, is determined to find her again. The drunken Mr Dolls (a humorously lumbering Robert Wiser), father of Jenny Wren, who makes outfits for the dolls that are visible, almost as silent observers, at various points along the stage, offers to help him out, demanding a jigger of rum for every answer he gives him. (Wiser hams it up here delightfully, taking a classic music-hall routine—which Dickens would have been familiar with—making the most of it, and enjoying it to the hilt.)
As Lizzie’s brother Charley, Isaiah Silvers’ near desperate earnestness is as two-sided as Headstone’s zealousness: we see Charley cruelly excoriate and uncompromisingly reject the sister he adores when she refuses to follow him on a path to “better” herself (but perhaps only so far, and thus, no threat to him) by marrying Headstone, just as we see Headstone’s dedicated, harmonious teacher turn tyrannical when his unrequited passions for Lizzie boil over in the classroom. (The half-dozen children in this scene, who look to be about six or seven years old, may be one of the surest signs of the O’Connors’ directorial mastery: natural in movement; sometimes happily or self-confidently sure, sometimes hesitant; responsive to the subtlest cues, it was like watching a hidden camera in a first or second-grade classroom.)
Among the working folk, Kelly Newman O’Connor as Jenny, the dolls’ dressmaker, captures the character’s combination of down-to-earth practicality, which enables her to lovingly care for her alcoholic father (a bear-like, humorously lumbering Robert Wiser)—not unlike Mrs Boffin’s patient, compassionate acceptance of her husband’s apparent moral lapses—and later, Eugene Wrayburn, who is nearly beaten to death in a jealous rage by Bradley Headstone. She also is possessed of a childlike imagination and quiet wisdom, expressed with ventriloquist sensibility through her dolls, which “comment” on what she, and we, have seen.
The music is well chosen, and forms part of an overall soundscape by Sound Engineer Ron Murphy that either enhances the intensity of the situations or embraces the emotions of the characters; sometimes, both. Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s gentle, melancholy “O, ma charmante, épargnez moi!” serves as the Jenny Wren “theme,” underscoring the physical fragility (she limps from a spinal deformity that is only mildly noticeable) of the woman whose emotional strength is its eloquent counterpart. Spare and haunting, increasing to a swelling, heaving, mournful intensity, selections from Sir Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto may find their most moving application in the heart-wrenching scene when Jenny, screaming, pulls Eugene’s battered body from the murky Thames, surrounded by turbid clouds of fog that enshroud the set.
Do not despair! That is not how it ends. And there are just three more chances to see—onstage—how it does.
The lighting (Eve Vawter) is effectively designed and employed, with spots of varying intensity and hue drawing the audience’s attention to the area on the stage (left, right, center) that holds the action at that point as the others go dark, setting and sustaining the mood for the scene.
The costumes (designed and created by Kelly Newman O’Connor) are masterly, ranging from the refined elegance and occasional daring of London society’s denizens (accent polishing courtesy of Newman O’Connor, who also served as dialect coach), to the dignified business dress of the families, to the respectable clothing of the working folk, to the threadbare wear of the waterside inhabitants.
Some of the standouts in the first group include a purple satin gown with small black embroidered flowers, black lace, and delicate sequin accents (worn by Gretchen Schermerhorn’s bitchy-and-owning-it Lady Tippins); and a deep turquoise, slim-white-belted gown, trimmed in white lace and strewn with small white bows, worn by Bella’s mother, Mrs. Wilfer (Natalie Behrends). Also, Alfred and Sophronia Lammle’s duds: for him, a rakish red velour frock coat, white shirt with flowing white bow and stand-up collar, and slate-black slacks and shoes, topped off with a full head of white hair and mustache (the latter of which came dangerously close to blowing or falling off, which was handled gallantly by Keith Anderson). The Missus (Wendy Lanxner) both matched him and complemented him, resplendent in black-and-white vertical stripe taffeta accented with a long red velvet bow and black lace collar.
Though identified as one of the working folk, John Rokesmith is handsomely attired in fitted ebony-black suit and crisp white shirt, his hair in the Romantic tradition of Shelley, the whole picture evocative of a tintype. But, as with Dickens’s novel—“Part mystery, part romantic comedy, part moral fable”—you can’t judge a book by its title, or a man by his appearance. Least of all, perhaps, a human being by her or his “situation.” As this affecting production of his complex tale of interlocking, interlacing lives defined and deformed by sometimes tragically artificial stratifications suggests: nothing is certain; nothing is sure. Except, perhaps, the humanity of people who believe in it.
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission.
Our Mutual Friend continues performances on Friday, January 30th at 7:30 PM and Saturday, January 31st at 2 and 7:30 PM at Lumina Studio Theatre performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theater- 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (800) 838-3006, or purchase them online.