It may not be as well-known as “David Copperfield” or “Oliver Twist” (or as beloved as “A Christmas Carol”), but “Hard Times” — the industrial revolution indictment Charles Dickens issued in 1854 — is full of memorable characters and compelling plot points. And while it’s not as easy a read as some of the author’s other works, it sure struck a chord with Lookingglass Theatre’s Heidi Stillman, whose adaption returns for a fourteen-week run beginning Oct. 4.
In addition to generating original pieces, Lookinglass is known, of course, for inventive adaptations of existing works, such as “Moby Dick” and “Treasure Island.” Stillman, who is currently the company’s artistic director, first settled on “Hard Times” in 2001, back when the company was performing in the Ruth Page Center for the Arts on North Dearborn Street.
“I love adaptation because I get to know the books so well,” shares Stillman. “And I’ve never adapted a book I wasn’t utterly in love with. I think to make a good play from a literary source, one needs to capture something essential about the book and the author’s point of view, while also having your own viewpoint, and being willing to change things significantly to reshape the material into a completely different art form.”
Set in a northern factory town, “Hard Times” follows the travails of Louisa and Tom Gradgrind, whose father has privileged the pragmatic over the poetic, leaving his children ignorant of beauty and indifferent to others. Both end up making bad choices: She marries a crass banker and he robs his brother-in-law’s bank. But in the novel and on stage, hard, grim facts are offset by the depiction of a circus, a messy, amusing antidote to the profit-above-all motive that drives the world Dickens explores.
Great works of literature pull us back again and again, and with each re-reading, we discover something new. And for Stillman, returning to a show she created 16 years ago, the same applies. “The issues dealt with in the book — about class and economic disparity, privilege and injustice, and just the basic human longing for meaning and beauty — still feel extremely relevant to the times we’re living through. And Dickens’ uncanny ability to have humor and pathos bumped up right next to each other, pulling all the way through to the end of his ingeniously plotted story, still takes my breath away.”
Oct. 4-Jan. 14, 2018, Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan. For tickets ($40-$85), visit Lookingglasstheatre.org