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Dickens novel `Hard Times' skillfully adapted to stage

Hard Times Adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from the novel by Charles Dickens. Directed by Richard E.T. White.

The American Theatre Exchange continues its 1987 season with a stirring production of ``Hard Times,'' skillfully adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from the 1854 novel by Charles Dickens. Instead of the teeming spectacle of the Royal Shakespeare Company's ``Nicholas Nickleby,'' the Berkeley Repertory Theatre makes do with a cast of five to play 21 principal parts and handle the narration for Dickens's biting attack on the evils of utilitarianism - the pragmatic doctrine of practicality. The drama is set in fictional Coketown, a grim and grimy Lancashire industrial city where hard hearts make hard times even harder.

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Thomas Gradgrind's (Jarion Monroe) narrow world is bounded by the facts and more facts, which he drills into the heads of daughter Louisa (Patricia Hodges), son Tom (Jeffrey Bihr), and the pupils of his model school. Chief among the latter is Sissy Jupe (Kathleen Chalfant), daughter of a strolling entertainer. When her father disappears, Sissy is taken into the Gradgrind household as a domestic but no longer a pupil.

Aside from the narrative appeal of the drama itself, the pleasures of a production like ``Hard Times'' inhere in the diverse characterizations and accents demanded of the players. Samples must suffice to suggest the prevailing versatility. Laurence Ballard roars his way through the role of Josiah Bounderby, that ``bully of humility'' and ``self-made humbug,'' and makes an endearing showman of the lisping proprietor of Sleary's Horse Riding. Miss Hodges explores the sad depths of the emotionally stunted Louisa and has a lovely time with the mysterious and ebullient Mrs. Pegler. Miss Chalfant is not only a loving Sissy and a loyal Rachel, but strikes just the right tone of comic malice for the spiteful Mrs. Sparsit, Bounderby's mischiefmaking housekeeper.

Mr. Monroe projects two diametrically opposite sides of the human equation: the misguidedly dogmatic schoolmaster and future MP Gradgrind and Stephen Blackpool, the principled loner who antagonizes Bounderby, is then blackballed by his fellow weavers and wrongfully suspected of the bank robbery committed by the despicable Tom Gradgrind. Besides his histrionic duties, the invaluable Mr. Bihr serves the production as composer and accompanist/sound effects man.

The bitter ironies of ``Hard Times'' reflected the social concerns Dickens poured into it. Modeled on the Lancashire town of Preston, it was ``a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it ... a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye....'' The evils of the Industrial Revolution so vividly described by Dickens have not altogether disappeared.

Bounderby epitomizes all the worst features of the exploiting employer. There are no Cheeryble brothers in ``Hard Times.'' Yet Dickens was scarcely more flattering in his portrait of the workers and their demagogic leader (Mr. Ballard again), who send Blackpool to Coventry when he argues for conciliation with the bosses. The treatment of this honorable man is one of the darkest aspects of a bleak drama of human suffering. The reconciliation that does take place involves a sadder and wiser Gradgrind and the cheerfully resourceful Sleary.

Scenic designer John Bonard Wilson has converted the backstage of Theatre 890 into an environmental space whose visual suggestions of milltown milieus surround the audience sections. As directed by Richard E.T. White, the absorbing three-hour-plus performance moves in and out of this multilevel arrangement with remarkable fluidity. Besides the intelligence and care with which it has been adapted and the high quality of the acting, ``Hard Times'' has been beautifully served by lighting designer Derek Duarte and costume designer Cathleen Edwards. The Berkeley offering is scheduled to run at Theatre 890 (Broadway between 19th and 20th Streets) through July 25.

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