Cape Cod Times: Big surprises in Victorian England

Publication date: 
December 15, 2016
Author: 
Debbie Forman

CAMBRIDGE - Based on contemporary writer Sarah Waters' Victorian thriller, "Fingersmith," Alexa Junge's play of the same title, is a tale not to be told by a reviewer. If you've read the book, you know why. Playgoers will be astonished by the twists and turns, the identity reversals, and the secrets and nefarious plots that collide in the American Repertory Theater production.

I can tell you this much, the play is riddled with betrayals, greed, crime and punishment - and, yes, love. The ART production brilliantly captures the dark underside of Victorian life with Fagin-like petty criminals and then some.

It is the story of two orphan girls who grew up in entirely different circumstances and come together in a diabolical plot, in which each has an untoward role.

The play opens in the shady home in a London slum of Mrs. Sucksby, "a baby farmer," according to the play's program. She takes in unwanted babies and raises them for her own purposes. Sue Trinder, one of her orphans, is the fingersmith, so-called because of her nimble fingers for pickpocketing and lock picking. This is a den of thieves, so Sue, the darling of Mrs. Sucksby, grows up rough and tough. She is ready to play a role designed by Richard "Gentleman" Rivers, a charming rogue who wants to wrest the inheritance from Maud Lilly, an heiress who lives with her uncle in a manor house in the countryside. Maud, to inherit her mother's fortune when she marries, was raised to be a lady in socially accepted Victorian terms, yet is also a prisoner in her uncle's home as he demands her help in writing a dictionary. But there is more than simple words to meet the eye here. Yet one more surprise.

Rivers sends Sue off to pave the way for his conspiracy. She becomes Maud's maid and friend and is charged with encouraging the attentions Rivers bestows on Maud so that she will marry him.

This is about as far as I should go without spoiling the story - actually stories, because both Sue and Maud periodically seize the narration to present their version.

Tracee Chimo gives a robust performance as Sue, the fearless, wayward girl who grows up to be a thief and is experienced in the ways of the world. In contrast is the ladylike Maud, a supposed innocent, played with a combination of authoritarian conviction and vulnerability by Christina Bennett Lind. The contrasts between the two characters and their interactions, first as lady and maid and then as more than friends, drives the story, each at one point revealing her own perspective.

Josiah Bania plays the smooth-talking, flirtatious scoundrel Rivers with charismatic charm and a light step.

Kristine Nielsen is arresting as the ribald, sly Mrs. Sucksby. T. Ryder Smith is Maud's autocratic Uncle Christopher. Several other actors play dual and triple roles.

The play moves back and forth over 20 years in the mid-19th century. The two-story set design is clever and atmospheric. With the use of period furniture, projections and a turntable, which moves actors, a boat and carriage through various locations, the single set becomes the scene of the slum house of Mrs. Sucksby, the manor home of Uncle Christopher, an insane asylum, a vicar's cottage and execution sites.

Playwright Junge has deftly managed to adapt Waters' 400-page novel into a dark and compelling 2½-hour play. There are surprises at every turn.

Christopher Acebo's set, Deborah Dryden and Carmel Dundon's costumes (hoop skirts, corsets and bonnets, which Maud and Sue slip in and out of), and Jen Schriever's lighting create the dark and mysterious atmosphere for the complex ins and outs of the story.

Bill Rauch's direction keeps the tension high and the surprises astounding. All of this is played against themes of class differences, identity as determined by environment, sinister secrets, as well as good and evil and the space between and connecting them.

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