Wineke: Review of ‘Dickens in America’

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One summer highlight of the American Players Theatre season is the one-person play featuring an APT stalwart.

Tracy Michelle Arnold captivated a sell-out audience a couple of years ago in “The Syringa Tree.” James DeVita wrote and starred in “In Acting Shakespeare,” an autobiographical play that was compelling for every minute the actor was on stage.

This summer, James Ridge, an APT veteran of 16 seasons, takes the stage in “Dickens in America,” a play also written by DeVita that purports to show what Charles Dickens’ last performance in America might have been in 1867 had not the famed author taken sick and, instead, spoken in Wisconsin.

This is a review and we will begin at the second act.

The second act of “Dickens in America” is delightful. Ridge is very funny and very moving. Much of the act consists of Ridge reading parts of “A Christmas Carol,” and he makes Ebenezer Scrooge come to life.

The character of Dickens also comes to life in this act. DeVita does a wonderful job of conveying the image of an old man who loves public attention but who is having trouble physically maintaining his vitality.

That was the second act. The second act was really good.

Then there was the first act. The first act was, in most areas, pretty much like the second act. Ridge, as Dickens, read selections from a number of the author’s books, weaving DeVita’s dialogue between the readings.

But I hated the first act.

Partially, I think, it was that Ridge didn’t seem to be in his own character.

People who attend APT performances regularly — and I think we’ve had season tickets as long as Ridge has been in the cast — get to know and love the actors. No matter what character he plays, Ridge has an element of Fred Astaire about him, witty and elegant but with just a whisper of a sardonic undertone. You come to expect Ridge to be just a bit aloof.

But, here he was on stage shouting out and overplaying Dickens’ lines. It may well be that that is precisely how Dickens, himself, read his selections — one guesses the APT folk do some research on things like this.
Nevertheless, the continuing feeling I got during the first act was “Why is Jim Ridge bellowing at me?” It just felt uncomfortable.

The difference between Act 1 and Act 2? I’m not really sure. It may be that we’re more familiar with the character of Scrooge than we are with other Dickens’ characters. It may be that the act includes more DeVita and less Dickens. What I do know is that I liked it better.

So, do see “Dickens in America.” Any play written by James DeVita and acted by James Ridge is worth experiencing.

But, if you are like me and don’t appreciate the first act, don’t leave at intermission because the best is yet to come.