Hard Times

REVIEW by Willard Manus

Bart DeLorenzo has done a masterful job of adapting and directing a stage version of HARD TIMES, by Charles Dickens. By moving the period from 1850 closer to the 20th century and encouraging his actors to dispense with phony-sounding English accents, DeLorenzo has made the production more universal and accessible to a contemporary American audience. DeLorenzo has also assembled an HARD outstanding cast to bring the people of Coketown--the fuel, not the drug--to life, and he has used the ample space at Evidence Room to recreate the town itself, with its giant factories belching enough smoke to permanently blot out sun and sky. HARD TIMES is a direct assault on the mentality that still exists today, both in capitalist and socialist countries, that industrial activity is a blessing, a necessity, no matter if it befouls the atmosphere and poisons the earth and rivers.

Joseph Bounderby (Don Oscar Smith) is Coketown's Mr Big, a rich man who makes his money out of the grinding labor and ill health of his workers. His cruel, utilitarian philosophy is echoed by Coketown's schoolmaster, Thomas Gradgrind (Jan Munroe), who calls his students by number, not name, and believes the only thing worth learning is facts. He is also all too willing to force his daughter Louisa (Ames Ingham) to marry the despicable Bounderby for his money, in order to help pay the gambling debts of his wastrel son, Tom (Ben Messmer).

HARD TIMES has a large canvas crowded with all walks of life, from circus performers, servants, union organizers and shabby- genteel spinsters to corrupt politicians, but DeLorenzo and his superb actors give character and depth to them all. By having everyone in the cast deliver bits of narration to the audience, Dickens' prose is well preserved; and, since the play is about the exploitation of the working-class, Evidence Room's backstage doors are kept open to the sounds and cries of its neighborhood, one of the poorest in Los Angeles.

HARD TIMES runs 2 1/2 hours, but it is the quickest, most enjoyable 2 1/2 hours imaginable. (Evidence Room, 2220 Beverly Blvd. thru June 6. Call (213) 381-7118 or visit evidenceroom.com