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Pip (Josh Krause) surrounded by playmates in "Great Expectations" at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. (PHOTO: Paul Ruffolo)

Chamber's masterful "Great Expectations" exceeds every single one

Two of the finest writers in history have turned their language and skill to the twin subjects of greatness and expectations.

In "Twelfth Night," William Shakespeare had Malvolio utter perhaps the best line ever when he said, "Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them."

And in "Sense and Sensibility," Jane Austen wrote "to wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect."

If ever those two concepts were joined together on a stage, it would be in "Great Expectations," the surprising and brilliant adaptation by Milwaukee's own Gale Childs Daly which opened Friday night at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

To say that this is mostly likely not the Charles Dickens novel you had to read in high school is to do justice to neither the novel nor the play. This production, under the singular direction of Molly Rhode, pays tribute to everything Dickens wrote and more.

It is the story of a young boy, Pip (Josh Krause), who on one singular night in a cemetery near his marsh home commits an act of kindness for a frightening stranger. That one moment shapes and changes his life. He goes from the life of an orphan stuck working as a blacksmith's apprentice to the life of a gentleman of means. Along the way, he moves from the country to the city, falls in love, fights battles, turns his back on friends and family, travels and is greatly surprised by life.

Dickens wrote only two novels that had the hero narrate the story, "David Copperfield" and "Great Expectations." And both of them wove tales of the development of a young boy into adulthood and then into the kind of maturity that comes only with age and experience. That development, both moral and psychological, is at the crux of the story.

What dare we dream, and what happens if our dreams come true?

It is that question Daly, aided and abetted by some of the Rhode's staging, has dealt with, complete with an inventiveness I have rarely seen on a stage.

Joining Krause in this cast are five wonderful and well-known Milwaukee actors: Jonathan Gillard Daly (married for 35 years to the playwright), Deborah Staples, Chike Johnson, Karen Estrada and Zack Thomas Woods. Joining them from North Carolina is Andrew Crowe, a composer and actor who played the violin with a haunting grace and evocation that set the mood for so many moments.

Krause is the only actor to play a single character. The others chip in as family, friends, antagonists, mysterious presences and various other parts of Pip's life. The changes are made with simple wardrobe adjustments in a monumental feat of costume design by Jason Orlenko and by subtle switches of dialect, coached by Tyne Turner. It's a masterful transition, many of them momentary, achieved with such simplicity and obvious relish.

Dickens story is full of humor along with the serious moral underpinning that is such a part of his body of work. And Daly has found the right balance, one that kept laughter in the crowd all the while it was clear that there was more at play here than something funny.

In the novel, which opens with a crashing and breathtaking scene in a graveyard, Pip soon finds himself in a succession of moments when it's time for some fun. Dickens didn't beat readers over the head to learn his lessons. He lured them with the kind of skill only a few ever possess.

Daly is true to that pathway. There are moments in this play, especially in the first act, that are as funny as they are surprising. They spring up at the most unexpected times and drew roars from the crowd.

Each actor had moments in the sun, but watching Daly, who is well over six feet tall and north of 60 years old, play a two-year-old sliding down, time after time, on a short little slide made out of wood may well have been the funniest moment of the night. He is an actor of resplendent breadth and depth but has always had a marvelous feel for just the right kind of comedy.

For those who have not seen Krause before but who are regular theatergoers in Milwaukee, you may remember Kevin Rich, the brilliant young actor who appeared in a number of Milwaukee productions, often at the late, great Bialystock and Bloom. Rich had the kind of puckish charm that made you love him from the moment you set your eyes on him and Krause has that same kind of appeal.

A final word must be said about Jason Fassl who seems to reach into his bag of electrical light each time to create the kind of atmosphere that becomes a character of its own in the play, a character in full service to the story being told.

And Madelyn Yee, the uber-creative properties master, designed and built a final scene with seven actors holding books in front of them, with individual white lights shining their faces out into a dark auditorium. It was a haunting example of what a intelligence and taste can do.

As spring dawns in Milwaukee, it is with great welcome that we should greet this adaptation. Daly and Rhode have combined to put on a stage a production that won't soon be forgotten.

"Great Expectations" runs through April 30 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.

Production credits: Director Molly Rhode; Production Stage Manager, Judy Martel, Scenic Designer, Lisa Schlenker; Costume Designer, Jason Orlenko; Lighting Designer, Jason Fassl; Properties Master, Madelyn Yee; Dialect Coach, Tyne Turner; Fight Choreographer, Ryan Schabach; Assistant Director, Joshua Pohja; Composer, Andrew Crowe' Production Manager, Brandy Kline.

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