What the Dickens?

Local playwright wrote “To Begin With,” starring Gerald Dickens

Jackie Renzetti

The play “To Begin With” reimagines the life of Charles Dickens and spotlights one of his lesser-known works.

Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, it will premiere at the Music Box Theatre this weekend. The fictional, one-man show illustrates why Charles Dickens adapted the gospels in “The Life of Our Lord,” which he wrote privately for his children and requested to remain unpublished until after his death.

Dickens’ great-great-grandson, Gerald Dickens, plays the part of the British novelist in the production.

“We are bringing this little story that he wrote for his children to the stage, and I am a family member performing it. To me, that’s one of the most exciting things about this project — it’s still a family project, and I’m being allowed to tell it to audiences here in Minneapolis,” Dickens said.

Charles Dickens’ last remaining child, Henry Fielding Dickens, willed the story’s fate to remaining family members after his own death. Published in 1934, it remains obscure.

“It’s not like one of his novels; it’s not big and brash and loud. It’s just a simple little telling of a story,” Gerald Dickens said.

Hatcher worked on the play for about four years. Producer Dennis Babcock approached him with the idea for a story related to “The Life of Our Lord,” and the two decided to create a backstory for it rather than re-enacting what Dickens wrote.

“[Hatcher] is able to create scenes and create characters that are interesting to watch, and he’s a great humorist. There are fun things in our show, people are going to laugh, and we also hope that people are going to be touched and moved,” Babcock said.

Hatcher and Babcock visited the house Dickens lived in during the time he wrote “The Life of Our Lord,” called Winterbourne. Hatcher said exploring the home sparked inspiration for the play.

Both Hatcher and Gerald Dickens said Charles Dickens was skeptical of religion but had strong faith in the Bible.

“Just coming up with a title for the play was a fraught [endeavor], because if you say ‘The Life of Our Lord,’ you have probably cut off a huge number of audience members who won’t show up,” Hatcher said. “At the same time, if you simply came up with a title that said ‘Dickens,’ that doesn’t tell you what the subject is about.”

Audiences will experience both the story of Dickens deciding to create his adaptation and bits of the final story he created.

Gerald Dickens plays all of the characters. Hatcher said the play refrains from using “pops,” in which actors rapidly switch positions and voices for a comic effect.

“To me, it was kind of like the play should be about an author trying to wrestle with another author’s words, honor them and respect them,” Hatcher said. “But at the same time make them palatable for an audience.

Gerald Dickens is comfortable with the one-man show format because of his roughly 20 years of experience.

And like Charles Dickens performed readings from his books, Gerald Dickens views plays as tributes to their authors.

Though generations separate the two, he said he feels like he knows Charles Dickens simply through his work and writings about him.

Gerald Dickens said he strives to remain true to the author’s character.

“You see [Charles Dickens] at one point very fragile and vulnerable as he’s recalling his own childhood. Other times he’s elegant and brash and larger-than-life. Other times, he’s businesslike. So within our script we’ve got a wonderful picture of all these different aspects of Dickens’ life,” Gerald Dickens said.

 

What: “To Begin With”

Where: Music Box Theatre, 1407 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis,

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Cost: $12-$36