‘A Tale’ that packs too much into the telling
Charles Dickens’s sweeping saga “A Tale of Two Cities’’ encompasses a wide swath of history and culture to illustrate “the best of times’’ and “the worst of times’’ in London and Paris at the end of the 18th century. But condensing all the conflicts into a two-hour stage version requires some difficult choices, which adapter Dwayne Hartford is unwilling to make. The result is a Wheelock Family Theatre production that is well-intentioned, but dramatically weak. Hartford’s script feels like a Cliffs Notes version of the novel, with all the major scenes included, but with very little connection or coherence.
At the heart of Dickens’s story is the love between Lucie Manette (Robin Eldridge) and Charles Darnay (Paul Melendy), both from families at different ends of the political spectrum, who find each other and fall in love despite their complicated histories. The episodic nature of the tale - it was first published in weekly installments - allowed Dickens to play out various story lines and develop innumerable characters as he traced the days leading up to and after the French revolution. But explaining who all these characters are, and how they fit together, will make your head spin.
In an effort to pull the stories together, Hartford makes the character of Sydney Carton (the outstanding Bill Mootos) the narrator. This could work, since in the novel, the dissolute lawyer Carton is relegated to the sidelines and watches as the woman he loves, Lucie, gives her heart to another. This narrator also has the opportunity to create much-needed transitions from one city to another. But Hartford’s use of the narrator is inconsistent, and he’s never there when we need him.
Director Susan Kosoff does a good job moving her company around Anita Fuchs’s minimalist set, but she can’t figure out how to keep the production moving and too often relies on tableaus that stop the action cold. Fuchs’s framing device of broken pieces of wood misses the opportunity to provide two distinct settings, so we never know exactly where we are.
Despite his often long-winded descriptions (Dickens was paid by the word), the novel includes some terrific characters, including Carton, who makes the ultimate sacrifice for love, Miss Pross, Lucie’s governess, and Madame Defarge, who knits the injustices of the time into a long scarf. M. Lynda Robinson gives Miss Pross just the right combination of spunk and loyalty, while Jane Staab, as Madame Defarge, heads into madness too quickly, not allowing the audience to understand the grief that sent her over the edge. Their battle near the end of the story, however, is wonderfully choreographed, so that what could have been a simple cat fight becomes an epic struggle between good and evil.
“A Tale of Two Cities’’ has some terrific dramatic potential, but Hartford gets bogged down in his effort to be true to all the themes Dickens included. The unintended consequence in this production is that if you haven’t read the book, even the best of times depicted here are just confusing.