New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Connecticut Theater

"David Copperfield"
Westport Country Playhouse, Westport

Whatever made the Playhouse people choose “David Copperfield” as its December show? Did they want to sidestep the inevitable choice of the annual “Christmas Carol” production, while still sending out an upbeat message? Did they want to evoke that lost and colorful Dickens world, which, in fact, spells the holiday season to many of us? Did they happen to have access to Giles Havergal’s skillful adaptation of this Dickens novel?

Whatever the reasons, “David Copperfield,” as directed by Anne Keefe and Joanne Woodward, proves to be a happy choice. It is told in a straightforward style, hewing closely to the novel. And though some complain that this “David Copperfield” lacks drama and innovation, we feel that this conventional style strikes just the right note. “Conventional” is not quite a fair term, since this “Copperfield” has its own dramatic device. Havergal has introduced a narrator—Copperfield himself (played by Mark Shanahan) —while another actor (Kieran Campion) is the Copperfield involved in the action. This device works beautifully, as the two play out a pas de deux, constantly interacting throughout the story.

Keefe and Woodward have in fact created a flawless production, a veritable gem, with never a false note. Copperfield and his colleagues go through numerous short scenes, each sliding smoothly into the next, as the tale unfolds. And since Dickens’ people tend to be caricatures, the players (particularly the comic characters) have every opportunity to go over the top, blustering when bluster is appropriate. Emotions are created with broad strokes. Dialect coach Deena Kaye has polished their speech to a fine sheen that exudes authenticity. Every line is clearly articulated by these well-trained actors, and every character is drawn memorably.

It is difficult, perhaps unfair, to single out favorites within this cast of 18. Yet we have our favorites. First, both Shanahan and Campion never miss a beat, as they share the title role. Then comes Saxon Palmer, who plays the betrayer Steerforth with an edgy unsettling style, fascinating to watch. And topping the list of wily villains is of the unctuous Uriah Heap, which Tom Beckett, fortunate to have the meaty role, plays to the hilt.

Among the women playing older comic characters, Allison Mackie is delicious as Mrs. Micawber, Beth Fowler as the warm-hearted Peggoty, and Molly Regan as a peppery Betsey Trotwood. Among the younger characters, Nicole Lowrance is a poignant Emily, as is Samantha Soule in the role of Copperfield’s mother. But especially noteworthy is Winslow Corbett, who plays Copperfield’s child-bride Dora with an endearing air-headed style.

If there is any criticism of this almost three-hour show, it is the length. “David Copperfield” could have used paring, making the length more suitable to modern audiences. But Dickens was such a strong story-teller, and these interpreters of the tale so good, that our interest never flags.

-- Irene Backalenick
December 5, 2005

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