Expect great things from San Jose Stage’s ‘Great Expectations’

Photo of a scene from the Great Expectations production by the San Jose Stage Company
Dave Lepori/Courtesy

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This holiday season, San Jose Stage offers a fantastic rendition of “Great Expectations,” a play adapted by Neil Bartlett from the famous Charles Dickens’ bildungsroman of the same name. Artistic director of The Stage, Randall King, describes the play as such in the production’s welcome message: “ ‘Great Expectations’ explores social injustice as well as universal human emotions and experiences, as relatable today as in the 1860s.” Accurately, as unfamiliar as the play’s setting and timely plot points are to us, the characters and their desires remain immensely relatable. A timeless story told through a talent-filled production, “Great Expectations” at San Jose Stage promises a good time.

“Great Expectations” follows the life of Pip (Keith Pinto), an orphaned boy who grows up in Kent with his harsh, cold-hearted older sister Mrs. Joe (Li-Leng Au) and her blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery (Norman Gee). While visiting his mother, father and three younger siblings on Christmas Eve, Pip encounters an escaped convict (Julian Lopez-Morillas) in the graveyard who threatens him with death if he does not bring him a file and food. A terrified Pip delivers the goods — stolen from the Gargery’s — the next morning, setting off an unexpected chain of events. The play follows Pip through the rest of his childhood and into adulthood: He gets to know the reclusive Miss Havisham (Au), falls in love with her adopted daughter, Estella (Jennifer Le Blanc) and later moves to London to become a gentleman.

The acting in the play is quite remarkable, especially impressive regarding just about every actor’s ability to comfortably balance multiple roles. Although there are 15 characters in “Great Expectations,” the cast consists of only six people; everyone except Pinto, who plays the lead role of Pip, juggles two or three characters. While this precarious balancing act sounds like the perfect recipe for confusion or monotony, each character change is very clear. The actors are able to offer distinct performances for each character; no role feels like a rehashing in a different costume.

Pinto’s performance is particularly captivating to watch. He is able to grow with Pip, effortlessly capturing Pip’s innocence and naivety as a small child and smoothly blossoming into a more assertive, self-assured young man. Pinto’s performance is clearly a difficult one, but he pulls it off with ease. Pip is easy to love, pity and root for, and the brightness in his character is brilliantly preserved and magnified by Pinto in this production.

“Great Expectations” also makes fantastic use of props. The set consists of little more than some stools, chairs, small benches and two boards that make up two halves of a door, and the use of these items to create the impression of different sets and items is ingenious. An especially clever use of these props is when Pip rides to Miss Havisham’s house for the first time with Gargery uncle Mr. Pumblechook (Lopez-Morillas) in a carriage: Pinto and Lopez-Morillas sat on stools side by side and placed a bench over their laps, and together with some impeccable acting to give the illusion of a bumpy ride, the two were able to create an immersive and believable scene with very little.

Although the play occasionally feels slow at times and the dense plot can be a tad hard to follow if viewers are unfamiliar with the story, “Great Expectations” overall succeeds as a superb display of acting and storytelling. And the slower parts are worth it, too — they are always rewarded with an entertaining twist. Come into this show with high expectations, and they will easily be met.

Joy Diamond covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].