The Charles Dickens of Jeffrey Hatcher’s “To Begin With” is a man at the top of his game. He has created some of literature’s greatest characters in Oliver Twist, Ebenezer Scrooge and Nicholas Nickelby, becoming a household name in the process. But what of the man behind these indelible personalities?
This celebrated writer, with his rags-to-riches back story and his showman’s instincts for crowd-pleasing, is closely examined in the one-man show receiving its world premiere at the Music Box Theatre in Minneapolis.
The play is set in 1847 on the Isle of Wight, where the author has brought his burgeoning family for vacation while he works on the manuscript of “David Copperfield.” He conceives the idea to write a children’s version of the Christian gospels, to give his offspring a sense of moral uprightness and an understanding of redemption — subjects that figure large in his work.
Over the course of two acts, Dickens (played, interestingly, by his own great-great-grandson Gerald Charles Dickens) struggles with how to frame this story, which he titles “The Life of Our Lord.”
As a comic counterpoint, he also struggles mightily with the annoying preteen Algernon Swinburne, who lives next door and who delights in mocking him as the “Christmas man,” in reference to “A Christmas Carol.” This snarky and irreverent youngster, who will become a celebrated poet in his own right, challenges Dickens’ patience and ultimately sparks his compassion.
As “To Begin With” unfolds on Nayna Ramey’s simple, window-framed set, it becomes clear that Hatcher is exploring the concept of artistic creation itself as he details Dickens’ false starts, sudden inspirations and dead ends. There’s much of interest here, although the first act occasionally bogs down as it follows the twists and turns of Dickens’ imagination.
That all changes in the second act, when Dickens decides to present the piece to his children as a play. Scattering the stage with props and bits and pieces of costumes, delivering wry impersonations of the characters, including the Three Kings as stuffy English gentlemen, and pulling scarves out of his sleeves at strategic moments, he holds center stage as a master showman.
Dickens the actor gives a marvelously textured performance as Dickens the writer, ably communicating his unique mix of incisive wit, quick empathy and maudlin sentimentality. He has no trouble commanding the audience’s attention over the course of this two-hour show.
Hatcher and Gerald Dickens have taken what is essentially a footnote to the great author’s life and transformed it into a peephole into the mind of the man himself. It’s an inspired collaboration.
Lisa Brock is a Minneapolis writer.