Poor Pip. This innocent stripling is blown hither and yon by the devices of rich and corrosive benefactors until his great expectations are replaced by rueful experiences.

Director Joel Sass has crafted a theatrical entertainment from Dickens' novel of self-discovery and it is a piece worthy of admiration. Sass' "Great Expectations" opened Friday at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul.

Sass has framed his play within the mature Pip's memory, a place that is still dominated by images of Miss Havisham, Abel Magwitch, Joe Gargery, Mr. Jaggers and the gothic detritus of Satis House. It was there, after all, that Pip relished the attention of his beautiful playmate, Estella, and it was in Miss Havisham's graces that he assumed he would find his fortune.

However, this damaged old woman had a harder vision for the young orphan and in the end both Pip and Estella bond not so much over romantic affection, but their survival as children.

Sass' overriding concept is that we are in an old Victorian theater. He and designer Rick Polenek built a quaint proscenium (complete with footlights) and littered the set with dusty old relics such as the string board of a grand piano. Michael Kittel's lights maintain a dusty shadow and Andy Mayer's sound design groans with age.

Within this conceit, a troupe of actors has assembled to put on a show. They provide the sound effects and do quick changes to portray the characterizations. Pip (Ryan Colbert) narrates his tale, beginning from the day the escaped convict Magwitch (a deliciously menacing E.J. Subkoviak) accosts him in the misty churchyard and demands succor.

Barbra Berlovitz wears the pasty mien of Miss Havisham, an imperious and manipulative beldam bent on avenging on all men her wedding day abandonment years earlier. She is costumed perfectly by Sonya Berlovitz. Ansa Akyea is a friendly Joe Gargery — Pip's best friend and brother-in-law — and then a commanding Jaggers, the barrister who manages Pip's financial windfalls. Adam Qualls shows a fine facility for a number of roles defined by caricature.

Colbert, looking like a loose-limbed Ichabod Crane, seems in voice and affect to be constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. That lack of modulation quite quickly wears on us and continues over the course of more than 2 ½ hours. Hope Cervantes takes some time, also, to cool her performance as Estella into something we can touch and feel.

And that is the significant flaw in Sass' commendable staging. The sense of artifice, that we are watching actors performing, rather than characters living a life, creates a unsympathetic distance. Subkoviak, Berlovitz and Akyea manage better with such distinct roles. But it is difficult to fully invest in Pip's fate and Colbert and Sass never quite find the core of his humanity.

Mind you, the form in which Sass has telescoped this massive novel makes perfect sense theatrically. Only in cinema could you hope to harness Dickens' many locations and realities. So expect a long evening — one in which you respect the work, but wish you could feel more.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299