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The Cricket on the Hearth
by Charles Dickens
Adapted by Vladimir Zelevinsky
Directed by Steve Callahan
West End Players Guild
December 7, 2019

Samantha Hayes, Kent Coffel, Mary Tomlinson, Kellen Green, Charles Heuvelman, Chuck Winning, Gracie Sartin
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

 

As the title of the giant storybook onstage at West End Players Guild suggests, it’s a Charles Dickens Christmas for the company this year. It’s a thoroughly Dickens story, and probably the second most well-known of the author’s Christmas writings. The Cricket on the Hearth has been dramatized and filmed quite a few times over the years, although not nearly as much the more famous Dickens holiday tale, and WEPG is presenting an all-new adaptation by a playwright they’ve worked with before, Vladimir Zelevinsky. As is to be expected with Dickens, it’s a play full of memorably named characters involved in a somewhat convoluted plot with some surprising twists and moral messages involved. As adapted and presented here, even though there are some slow moments, overall it makes for a heartwarming theatrical experience for the holiday season.

The storytelling convention used here works well for this particular story, having various characters take turns narrating the story, starting and ending with the cheerful Mary “Dot” Peerybingle (Grace Sartin), a young mother and the wife of the local mail carrier, the kindly but much older John Peerybingle (Chuck Winning), who dotes on his wife and child but is somewhat insecure about whether he deserves his by all accounts devoted young bride. It certainly seems like a happy home, blessed with occasional chirping of a cricket, viewed as a symbol of good luck. The cricket may not be seen by the audience, but its presence is made known through the use of playwright Zelevinsky’s memorable score, admirably played by Heather Chung on violin and accompanied by Cameron Perrin on flute. The Peerybingles’ lives are intersected with various others in this twisty little story, including the kind and weary toymaker Caleb Plummer (Charles Heuvelman), who weaves fantastic tales of an idealistic life to his daughter Bertha (Samantha Hayes), who is blind but who turns out to be much more perceptive than Caleb realizes. Caleb, who is a widower and whose other child, a son, is apparently lost after leaving to travel the world, works for an imperious boss, Mr. “Gruff and” Tackleton (Kent Coffel), who hates toys and children despite his line of business. Tackleton is set to marry the young May Fielding (Mary Tomlinson), and old friend of the Plummers and of Dot Peerybingle’s, to the consternation of Caleb. The preparations for the impending wedding, along with the situation of the Peerybingles’ taking in a mysterious, obviously disguised “Stranger” (Kellen Green), form the center of the conflict in this story that seems to emphasize the virtues of loyalty and kindness and their eventual triumph over the evils of greed.

Not having read the original story, I don’t know exactly how faithful the adaptation is, but as a play, it works. There are some twists and resolutions that at turns seem overly obvious, sudden, and implausible, but that’s in keeping with some Dickensian conventions. The story is dramatized well, for the most part, with a focus on generally likable characters (with the exception, for the most part, of “villain” Mr. Tackleton), as well as the musical themes that recur throughout the show and provide a fitting soundtrack to the production. The acting is excellent all around, with especially strong performances from Sartin and Winning as the Peerybingles, who seem well-matched despite the oft-mentioned age difference. Heuvelman as Caleb and Hayes as Bertha are also excellent, as is Coffel as a suitably and comically “Gruff” Tackleton. Green as the enigmatic “Stranger” and Tomlinson in the somewhat underwritten role of May round out the strong ensemble with their fine performances.

The production values here are especially impressive, among the best I’ve seen from this company, with a versatile, detailed, and whimsical set by George Shea that forms the ideal backdrop for the story. There are also well-suited, colorful costumes by Tracey Newcomb and excellent atmospheric lighting by Tony Anselmo that helps to set and maintain the overall mood of the production. There’s also that excellent music, already mentioned but worth mentioning again, serving so well to emphasize the overall Dickensian tone and themes of the story.

Overall, I would say this production makes an effective, thoroughly entertaining holiday tale. The Cricket on the Hearth may not be as celebrated as other Christmas stories, but it’s a worthwhile one nonetheless. As staged so effectively by the strong cast at West End Players Guild, this is an engaging, heartwarming holiday story.

Kent Coffel, Chuck Winning
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting The Cricket on the Hearth at Union Avenue Christian Church until December 15, 2019

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