“FINGERSMITH” — Adapted play by Alexa Junge, based on the novel by Sarah Waters; Directed by Bill Rauch; Set design by Christopher Acebo; Costume design by Deborah Dryden, Lighting Design by Jen Schriever; Composer/Sound design by Andre Pluess; Projection design by Shawn Sagady; Wigs & Makeup design by Rachel Padula Shufelt. Presented by American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge through January 8th.
by Susan Daniels
“Fingersmith” is a love story that pushes against societal norms, gender, and sexual orientation, although, initially, many viewers are unlikely to think of it that way. Instead, they probably would describe it as a story about a scrappy pickpocket who helps a raffish rogue swindle a gullible, young heiress out of her inheritance. Actually, both perspectives are valid in this provocative piece filled with numerous threads that twist and turn toward blind alleys and decamp down dead ends.
This is a smart play, currently running at American Repertory Theater through January 8th, so be sure to bring your A-game. Even when fully awake and present, the 2 1/2 hour shape-shifting production is challenging . . . to say the least. With a changing narrative voice between the two female protagonists, you never know quite where you stand in the dramatic perspective, or whose plight is most sympathetic.
Based on Welsh novelist Sarah Waters’ 500-plus page thriller, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, no one and nothing is as it seems. Set in Victorian England, “Fingersmith” opens on a den of thieves, operated by baby farmer Mrs. Sucksby (Obie-winner and Tony-nominee Kristine Nielsen), who takes in pregnant women at wit’s end, who give birth – and then their infants – to Mrs. Sucksby. In her yin yang greedy/affectionate way, she also functions as a Machiavellian mother for her gang of thieves, fencing their pilfered items in a Dickensian manner. The orphaned baby Sue Trinder (Tracee Chimo) – now, the talented, teenage pickpocket of the title – is front and center among her comrades. Enter the adored Gentleman (Josiah Bania) – a con man dripping with charm – who lures Sue to apply for the position of maid to the heiress Maud Lilly (Christina Bennett Lind), also an orphan, who serves as an involuntary secretary to her fanatical uncle, Christopher Lilly (T. Ryder Smith), said to be compiling a dictionary. The plan is . . . once Gentleman obtains the inheritance, Maud will be declared mad and abandoned in an insane asylum. As one of the twisty turns unfolds, Sue and Maud develop an affectionate relationship, which grows into a passionate love affair – something Gentleman does not foresee.
Lighting designer Jen Schriever’s contribution reflects a moody and powerful presence in the play, often doubling as the illumination as well as a spotlight on the shadowy elements of the plot. The multi-level architecture of set designer Christopher Acebo, which includes a built-in turntable, showcases the spare and severe survival mode of the thieves’ domain as well as the stiff and stifled refinement of the Lilly estate. Costume designer Deborah Dryden whips up a panoply of Victorian finery juxtaposed against a ‘make do’ and visually effective array of garments worn by the other half. In certain moments, all three designers coalesce in a tableau, resulting in the actors looking like chiseled silhouettes.
Though Bill Rauch – last ART stint in 2013 when he helmed “All the Way” in Cambridge and, the following year, on Broadway, where it won Tony Awards for best play and for Bryan Cranston portraying LBJ – has chosen a group of stellar collaborators, its his direction that anchors the production via a quality of freedom within the structure. Even when the plot may be confusing, his direction allows the actors to push up and play wildly against each other, teasing out performances that resonate across the board – literally.
As the two female protagonists, Chimo and Lind – a welcome treat in light of predominantly male-oriented plays and films – compete for leading lady honors. At various times, both actresses address the audience, individually, and emphatically state, “This is my story.” These characters are smart women whose intelligence molds in different ways. Though she has less stage time, a case could be made that Nielsen is the protagonist, due to her puppeteer persona in regards to past, present, and future events. With all three, they turn in stellar performances by way of insightful acting choices, serving to solidify their characters.
While slithering along the story, Bania concocts just the right element of eye-catching gent – seesawing among Sue and Maude as well as Mr. Lilly and Mrs. Sucksby – in a delightfully devilish dance of adoration and loyalty. It’s easy to see how the women and ensemble of characters fall for him.
Throughout, “Fingersmith,” a highly structured plot told in a masculine voice, is a muscular beast. With strong, potent acting and storytelling, every element is substantial and of high quality . . . thrusting the production forward to its surprising climax. For more info: (617) 547-8300 or http://americanrepertorytheater.org/ .