“This is my story now,” declares the heiress Maud Lilly (Christina Bennett Lind) with a chilling note in her high, tremulous voice in the second act of the American Repertory Theater’s “Fingersmith.” Indeed, there is plenty of fourth-wall-breaking tug-of-war over who gets to be the main character of this Gothic Victorian thriller, the main contenders being Sue Trinder (Tracee Chimo), a tomboyish orphan nicknamed “Fingersmith” for her lockpicking and pickpocketing skills; Lilly, a delicate, sheltered young heiress whose work as a secretary for her eccentric uncle requires her to always wear gloves; and Mrs. Sucksby (Kristine Nielsen), a baby farmer who takes in unwanted babies from desperate women—for a price. Mrs. Sucksby and Richard “Gentleman” Rivers (Josiah Bania), a dashing con man, send Sue to work as a handmaiden for Maud to help scam her out of her inheritance. But unexpected passions, madness, and secrets come to light, complicating things a great deal.
Director Bill Rauch and the cast of “Fingersmith” serve up a captivating show, with a riveting, dexterously handled plot, thoughtful social commentary, and moments of emotional poignancy. This play is fully self-conscious, and the characters make occasional jabs at the Gothic genre’s sensationalism while in the heat of the moment. “I promised these folks a satisfying ending!” Sue cries in the middle of an intense scene, and she does not fail to deliver.
Based on the novel of the same name by Sarah Waters, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Alexa Junge’s adaptation takes the audience on a whirlwind ride through an intricately laid plot that twists with every shift of the scene. And the scenes shift beautifully, accompanied by Andre Pluess’s sound design, featuring romantic and mysterious strains of English folk-inspired music. The compact set designed by Christopher Acebo can take the shape of a London slum, a mansion, an asylum, or a gallows with a few elegant lighting changes and rotations of the floor. Jen Schriever’s ingenious lighting design centers on a large sheet hanging at the center of the stage on which black-and-white film is projected when the plot thickens. The costumes, designed by Deborah Dryden, play an important role in the play’s plot, and range from practical brown frocks for the poor to sumptuous pastel gowns for the rich.
As a setting, Victorian England has a rich artistic history of works exploring women’s issues and the budding of feminist thought. “Fingersmith” duly defies “traditional portrayals of what was considered appropriately ‘feminine’ at the time,” as Junge writes in the program notes. Sue, Maud, and Mrs. Sucksby manipulate the enormous social constraints of being a woman in Victorian England, rich or poor, as they each try to secure money and freedom in their own way. They are each complex, with lovingly depicted internal lives, while “Gentleman” receives nothing near the intimate emotional portraiture that the women do. Although he initially seems to be the primary agent in the story, it is revealed in a later twist that he is only one of the pawns. The corset stands at the center of the play (and the promotional posters) as a familiar symbol of the beauty standards, restrictions, and sexualization of women in the era. It is featured in the intimate private chamber scenes when Sue undresses Maud. The removal of her painfully tight corset, her enormous taffeta gown, and finally her gloves which she must never, ever remove—all combine to depict the vast chasm between how the Victorian woman must present herself in public, and the complex, chaotic, sometimes violent inner life that may be lurking just beneath the surface.
What shines brightest in the show, though, is not so much the sweeping feminist symbolism, the lushly woven backdrop, or the gasp-inducing plot twists, but rather the quiet moments of heartbreaking realization that feature the stellar acting talents of Chimo and Lind. A single tone of a tuning fork rings through the theater at a particular moment when Sue and Maud each realize their mutual attraction, deliciously alone together in a private chamber. And when shocking revelations come to light the show takes a break from the raucous, whirling, nonstop action to peer gently and deeply into the two heroines’ hearts.
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