Review: 'Hard Times' at Lookingglass is pure theatrical magic

This year, Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company is celebrating a major milestone. The 2017/2018 season marks the company’s 30th anniversary. As such, it is only fitting they have decided to kick off this celebratory season by reviving one of their classic productions.

The award-winning “Hard Times,” adapted for the stage and directed by Heidi Stillman, first premiered 16 years ago in the spring of 2001. The 2017 “Hard Times” is a dazzling and dynamic production that sees many original cast members returning to old roles, or taking on new ones, and, with its combination of literary adaptation, circus-infused choreography – courtesy of a partnership with The Actors Gymnasium – and inventive stagecraft, it is an uncannily perfect reflection of the incredible work Lookingglass has been doing for three decades.

Adapted from Charles Dickens’ 1854 novel of the same title, “Hard Times” is an ode to art and amusement and the vital role they play in the living of a full life.

In the factory town of Coketown, schoolchildren and workers alike labor away under strict masters with no time for diversion. Schoolmaster Mr. Gradgrind (ensemble member Raymond Fox) runs his school to the refrain of facts and figures, drilling his children and students (Cordelia Dewdney, JJ Phillips, Audrey Anderson and Raphael Cruz) on only that which can be objectively proven, while the blustering bank and mill owner Mr. Bounderby (Troy West) presides unforgivingly over his laborers (ensemble members David Catlin and Louise Lamson). When a traveling circus comes to town, it sets into motion a series of events that will alter all of their lives.

Stillman’s script is faithful to the spirit of its source material, relying on the familiar Dickensian elements as its foundation, while deftly weaving in fantastical circus performances to elevate it the level of spectacle that is unique to Lookingglass. Her staging is beautifully purposeful, creating striking visuals that vividly illustrate the central conflicts. Of course, she is aided in this by Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi’s circus choreography.  Performers tumble, spin and soar in the literal circus scenes, as well as in fantasy scenes performed behind a scrim. It is an absolute joy to see Hernandez-DiStasi’s choreography utilized in a purely circus context in a show that takes time and care to actively celebrate the art of circus itself.

“Hard Times” is an ensemble piece relying on the strong, committed performances of the entire cast, many of whom tackle multiple roles, as well as execute the many practically balletic scene-changes. At the center of this production is Cordelia Dewdney’s raw and revelatory performance as Louisa Gradgrind, the emotionally repressed daughter of the schoolmaster. Dewdney plays Louisa with an exquisitely subtle desperation. Her every movement and utterance renders a portrait of a young woman longing to scream, only to find she never has learned how. When she does finally release all that’s been pent up inside her, it is equal parts satisfying and heartrending. Raymond Fox is, as always, an undeniably commanding presence, especially in the role of Mr. Gradgrind (Fox tackles three parts in all), a role he is returning to after 16 years. It would be easy to see the strict Gradgrind become a villain in less capable hands, but Fox fills the role with such sincerity and earnestness there is no such stain upon him.

Chicago theater newcomer Audrey Anderson must be applauded for her portrayal of circus girl Sissy Jupe, the production’s most physically demanding role. Anderson performs most of the soaring aerial acts; she swings from ropes and sails on silks, beautifully bringing Louisa’s stifled fantasies to life. Other standouts include David Catlin’s dual performance of downtrodden worker Stephen Blackpool and the kind-hearted, lisping circus proprietor Mr. Sleary and Amy J. Care’s scene-stealing portrayal of the villainous schemer Mrs. Sparsit.

The production design is an incredible achievement and seems to be as much a character as any other member of the cast. Capturing Dickens’ vivid settings is not an easy feat, but scenic designer Dan Ostling’s set is a marvel of minimalist design that does so remarkably well. Two dual storied sets of scaffolding and a staircase transform into the play’s many settings, from schoolrooms and circus tents to banks and factories, with the careful and sparing addition of select pieces of furniture. Coupled with Brian Sidney Bembridge’s atmospheric lighting design, Mara Blumenfeld’s period costumes and Andre Pluess’ sound design and music, it’s easy to slip into the story and fill in blanks that intentionally have been left. It is almost impossible to believe you have not seen the smoke-choked Coketown rendered before you in painstaking detail.

There always is some magic in seeing a Lookingglass production. Whether it is part of the script itself, in the transformative performances or the always inventive wizardry of the stagecraft, they seem to leave audiences utterly enchanted. “Hard Times” is no different; it is an emotionally pure spectacle that seems to embody the very essence of the company, bringing beauty, amusement and, yes, magic to the everyday. It is absolutely an auspicious way to launch their pearl anniversary season, and an indication of what certainly will be many more years of theatrical magic.

• A 17-year veteran of the theater, Kathryn McCord of Crystal Lake holds a master’s degree in English from Northern Illinois University. She is a former college English instructor and now works at the Crystal Lake Public Library.


WHEN: Through Jan. 14

WHERE: Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago

COST & INFO: A Dickensian carnival of characters inhabits the streets of smoke-choked Coketown. Tickets start at $50. Tickets and information: or 312-337-0665

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