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Thursday, October 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 41.0° F  Fair
Arts
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American Players Theatre's Dickens in America highlights the author's talent for cultivating empathy
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The play is a showcase for Ridge's versatility.
Credit:Zane Williams

You don't have to be a huge fan of writer Charles Dickens or actor James Ridge to appreciate the talents of both in American Players Theatre's Dickens in America (through Oct. 19). The play opened Saturday in the indoor Touchstone Theatre.

This one-man show, which James DeVita adapted from excerpts of Dickens' works, imagines what it may have been like to see the writer perform a farewell reading in the Midwest, reflecting back on his life's work and the human condition. The premise is not totally farfetched. Dickens did visit the United States in 1842 and again toward the end of his life in 1867. He was also in the vanguard of novelists doing public readings.

The play is a showcase for Ridge's versatility. He performs not just as Dickens but a multitude of Dickens' characters, swiftly shifting from one accent, posture and temperament to the next. With long, gray hair and a florid spiraling beard, Ridge is convincing as both a small but brave weakling (Oliver Twist) and a violent brute who flees the scene of a murder (Bill Sikes).

The production is spare but elegant. Nathan Stuber's set and Holly Payne's costuming give Ridge the right environment and wardrobe to transform himself into several different personalities. Director C. Michael Wright elicits restraint from Ridge, who might have embarked on a wilder theatrical journey.

DeVita draws from an interesting cross-section of works, ranging from a goofy Nicholas Nickleby excerpt about a curious family of ponies to the poignant closing piece, The Child's Story.

Ridge has played Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, and his ease in that role is apparent. But watching him present scenes from the famous novella in a new way made me appreciate them more. This wasn't sentimental treacle but rather a reflection on redemption. Dickens has a knack for making us see ourselves in his characters. His perfectly crafted descriptors, like calling Scrooge “secret ... self-contained, and solitary as an oyster” and Mrs. Fezziwig "one vast substantial smile," help us instantly understand their essence.

Between readings, Dickens shares his stance on social justice, religion, poverty and hypocrisy. He also reveals parts of his own family's past. We learn how he and his family landed in debtors' prison and how his education was cut short at age 11 when he was forced to work long hours applying labels to boot-polish jars. When he ponders how he could be "so easily cast away at such a young age," we see how he became acutely aware of the injustices of the world. This perspective informs and inspires his work and gives him empathy that informs the vivid lives of his characters, whether they're heroes or villains.

There is no escaping the impact of Dickens' work, even if you've never read his writing. And no matter how much Dickens you've studied thus far, you're likely to pick up one of his works after seeing this production. As a woman loudly whispered during the show: "I've never read The Pickwick Papers, maybe I ought to."

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