Review: APT's 'Dickens in America'

James Ridge succeeds in one-man show

Jul 22, 2013

James Ridge in 'Dickens in America'

James Ridge in 'Dickens in America'

Photo by Zane Williams

Late in his illustrious literary career—and in defiance of contemporaries who thought he was cheapening himself by doing it—the legendary author Charles Dickens embarked on a schedule of public readings and performances that would have put Oprah to shame. 

Dickens hit several American cities, but he never made it to the Midwest before his failing health forced an untimely return to London. That didn’t stop Jim DeVita, American Players Theater’s resident actor/author/playwright, from imagining what would have happened if he had. DeVita’s Dickens In America (playing in American Players Theatre’s Touchtone Theatre through October 19) debuted a few years ago as a bonus fundraiser up the hill. Today, DeVita’s one-man play has matured into a full-fledged night of powerful theater, a love letter to literature and a look into the soul and characters of one of the world’s most famous authors. In the intimate setting of the Touchstone, it’s a deeply affecting show.

Not every actor is capable of commanding the stage solo for a full hour and a half, but James Ridge is. Sporting Dickens’s trademark curls and defiant beard, Ridge uses his wide array of vocal talents to engage the audience and make Dickens and his characters come alive, just as the author once did. The delicate pacing he manages in acting out the scene between the aptly named Mr. Gradgrind, the fact-crazed headmaster from Hard Times, and young Cecilia Jupe is breathtaking, and just one of several amazing vignettes. Emotions run the gamut: The audience roared over Ridge’s reading of “Ode to an Expiring Frog” from The Pickwick Papers and was stunned into silence during the scene when Bill Sikes murders Nancy from Oliver Twist. Like an expert emcee or politician, Ridge holds his book up as if he’s actually going to read from it ... and then never ends up looking at it at all.

The show’s climax comes as its first act closes, with Ridge’s Dickens railing loudly at the hypocrisy of moralists and the falsely pious who ignore the poverty and social ills all around them. His ardor overcomes him and suddenly the audience is reminded that it’s watching a historical legend who’s less than a year from his own death. Ridge’s passionate portrayal makes it easy to see why more than a few historians—and his own personal doctor—suggested that Dickens’s public readings hastened his demise.

Act Two is significantly more gentle and slightly less affecting, focusing heavily on multiple selections from A Christmas Carol—a happy coincidence for those who’ve watched Ridge play the role of Scrooge the last several years for Children’s Theater of Madison. These are familiar passages and lose a little of their dramatic oomph for being so recognizable. The Dickens Ridge evokes here is a man fully aware of his impending mortality and a man desperate to know he’s made a difference. “In life as in the theater, one does need to know one is being heard,” Ridge intones at one point. I think we can safely say he has been.

A one-man show in an indoor theater about an author whose most famous work is tied to Christmas has the very real potential to become the forgotten stepchild of APT’s 2013 summer season. That’d be a tragedy of truly Dickensian proportions.

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about and reviewing Madison-area theater for nearly 15 years.

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