Wall Street Journal - Darkly Dickensian Drama





The Life & Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Parts I and II

Before "Angels in America," there was "The Life & Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby." The Royal Shakespeare Company's 8 1/2-hour-long stage version of Charles Dickens's 1839 novel, directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, transferred to Broadway from London's West End in 1981, snapped up a best-play Tony and created in a single stroke the modern vogue for the marathon multipart shows that have come to be known as "event theater."

Not surprisingly, revivals of "Nicholas Nickleby," which calls for 39 actors, are rare. Accordingly, David Edgar, who wrote the script, prepared an abridged version in 2006 that has since been mounted three times on this side of the Atlantic. Now Orlando Shakespeare Theatre has taken it on, with results that are both spectacular and satisfying. I didn't see the original production, which by all accounts was a miracle of creative stagecraft, but it's hard to imagine that it was more moving—or fun—than Orlando Shakespeare's 6 1/2-hour version, directed by Jim Helsinger and Christopher Niess, whose 27 actors (who play 150-odd characters) are deployed with infinite resourcefulness.

Since "Nicholas Nickleby" is one of Dickens's most popular novels, I'll eschew a detailed synopsis of the labyrinthine plot, in which the title character ( John P. Keller), plunged into poverty by the death of his father and left there by the callousness of Ralph Nickleby ( Greg Thornton), his rich uncle, embarks on a series of picaresque exploits that bring him—eventually—comfort and joy. What we have here is, in short, the basic Dickens myth, in which a plucky young man pulls himself out of London's lower depths by sheer force of will to become a gentleman of means.

What makes it work, here as always, is the way in which Dickens, the great Victorian preacher of the social gospel, tells his tale with a mixture of warm humor and dark realism, and part of what makes it so powerful onstage is that Mr. Edgar doesn't stint on the darkness. Never are you allowed to forget that 19th-century England is full of desperately poor people, or that Nicholas and Kate ( Allison McLemore), his gentle but determined sister, could easily vanish into their faceless ranks.

Yes, the results are melodramatic in the extreme, and the characters, again as always, are one-dimensional. For Dickens, characterization was caricature: Nicholas is the Good Guy, Ralph the Bad Guy, and everybody else is an elaborately drawn cartoon. That's what makes his novels so hard for many contemporary readers to get through—and what makes them so effective when adapted for the stage or the screen. Instead of wading through page-long thickets of broad-brush description, you watch talented actors portraying the characters, which frees you to focus on the plot and dialogue.

That's where Orlando Shakespeare's "Nicholas Nickleby" shines most brightly: The cast is consistently superior, starting with Mr. Thornton, who plays Ralph as a hawk-faced, flint-hearted monster of self-will who, like Ebenezer Scrooge, has renounced human kindness. "All love is cant and vanity," he rasps, and you know at once that the fires of hell await him. What is most impressive about Mr. Thornton's performance, though, is that it isn't a caricature: You believe in its reality, which makes Ralph's decision to live without love even more horrifying.

Mr. Keller and Ms. McLemore acquit themselves splendidly in their less grateful roles, though it's in the nature of the show that the supporting players often make stronger impressions. Even the servants are boldly characterized in this production, while the villains, most particularly Wackford Squeers ( Richard B. Watson), the odious schoolmaster, are as memorable as well-carved gargoyles. As for Stephen James Anthony, who plays Smike, the crippled "drudge boy" who attaches himself to Nicholas, he is as good as it's possible to be. No matter how unsentimental you think you are, you'll be touched by the way in which Mr. Anthony brings his pitiful plight to believable life.

To keep so complex an enterprise in motion is a formidable feat of directorial engineering, but Messrs. Helsinger and Niess are fully equal to the task, and performing the show on a Shakespearean-style open thrust stage helps to keep the energy level high throughout. So does Bert Scott's Broadway-quality set, which makes ingenious use of a turntable, a trap door and multiple playing levels. Jack A. Smith'speriod costumes are just right…but why go on? Everything about this production is right—including the timing. At a moment when long-term unemployment in America is alarmingly high, surely nothing could be more timely. So if you need respite from the servant porn of "Downton Abbey," come to Florida and plunge yourself into the ever-relevant adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and his friends and enemies.

—Mr. Teachout, the Journal's drama critic, is the author of "Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington" and "Satchmo at the Waldorf." Write to him at tteachout@wsj.com.