How do we see plays? Not with our eyes. Consider the stage version of Charles Dickens' "Hard Times" at the San Diego Repertory Theatre:

Set in a grim factory city called Coketown, this was Dickens' angriest and shortest novel--only about 300 pages. Even so, the San Diego production has 19 characters.

Played by four actors.

And it doesn't seem a stunt.

That's the surprise. Not only do we accept Sabin Epstein's players in their multiple roles, there doesn't seem to be anything strained about their laying aside one character and putting on another one, even when they do so in the middle of a scene. In fact, it seems a pleasingly efficient way to get on with the story.

Which suggests that, 2,500 years after the invention of the theater, we are still making discoveries about it. Or, perhaps, re-making them.

That old saw about theater being a "willing suspension of disbelief," for example. Absolutely. Give a theater audience half a slice and they'll see the whole loaf, if you do it right.

For example, there's a little moment in "Hard Times" when a poor woman says goodby to a friend at the end of the working day and walks through the gloom to her tenement. It might take hours to get the shot right if this were a film. Actress Allison Brennan simply clutches her shawl and moves up the aisle, and we see a woman picking her way over dim cobblestones.

Magic? Sleight of hand, rather: a good director's knowledge of how to cue the mind's eye with a few details--the shawl, the slow step, the shadow at the top of the aisle.

The fewer the details, the better. "Hard Times" ranges all over Coketown, yet D. Martyn Bookwalter's set reads only as an assortment of wooden levels, with one dirty skylight. Compare John Napier's spectacular set for "Starlight Express." Maybe the reason it didn't get a Tony nomination was that it didn't give the audience anything to do .

"Hard Times's" performances speak to the imagination in the same way. No one puts on a disguise. It's obvious, for example, that Richard Farrell is playing the pedant, Gradgrind, and his scapegrace son, Tom.

But how easy it is to suspend this knowledge--to absolutely believe young Tom when he looks into the fire and yearns to get out from under his miserable father's ink-stained thumb! True, Tom looks very much like his father, but that's as far as the resemblance goes. In fact it wouldn't be a surprise to see the old crab come through the door and tell Tom to stop lollygagging.

We are talking acting here, not impersonating. A few of the smaller characters are given a quick cartoon sketch, but the major characters are thoroughly examined. The most touching is Gradgrind's enigmatic daughter, Louisa, played by Darla Cash.

Gradgrind's insistence on seeing the world as a collection of "facts," makes him a somewhat droll character in himself. But the effect on his children is devastating. Cash makes Louisa a strained young woman who becomes increasingly aware that something vital was left out of her upbringing--something that can't be reclaimed now that she is an adult. To see Cash flip from bleak Louisa to a chatty old lady who comes to Coketown only once a year (for purposes to be divulged in the last act)--and from there to a brisk working woman running a union meeting--and from there back to Louisa--is to know the pleasure of repertory theater.

It's the same with Robert Machray, at one moment playing Louisa's all-blaming husband, Bounderley, and at the next moment playing Sleary, the wine-bibbing circus owner who wants to go easy on the world. Machray also plays a dynamic union organizer and Louisa's negligent seducer--the one place where you wonder if the show couldn't have used a fifth actor.

Brennan's most unforgettable character is Mrs. Sparsit, a woman who doesn't let anyone forget that she has seen "better days." She reminds us of the women that Kate Nickleby worked for--not the first time over the evening that we're put in mind of "Nicholas Nickleby."

"Hard Times" (adapted by Stephen Jeffreys) confirms that "Nicholas" wasn't a one-shot. Once again, we see that a novel can be brought to the stage without sacrificing its most important character: the author.

For years we thought that a novel's characters and dialogue and plot could be transferred to the stage, but that the author's voice could not. You couldn't have characters walking around saying "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." That was narrative, while theater was drama.

"Nicholas" proved that theater wasn't drama; or wasn't just drama. It was storytelling. And the storytelling could be parceled out among the cast, without sacrificing the audience's belief in them as characters.

"Hard Times" consolidates the advance, by showing that the technique can be applied to a small cast show as well--moreover, to a show where the actors move visibly between various identities. In theory this should put an extra strain on the viewer's credulity.

In fact, as we see in San Diego, it merely adds another layer of interest to a game that theater audiences need no coaching to enjoy. It also adds another level of authority to the story. No adaptation could match Dickens' great description of Coketown, and we get it full strength here:

"It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had permitted it; but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black, like the painted face of a savage. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye. . . . "

When the San Diego cast applauds the audience at the end of "Hard Times," it's not for form's sake. They worked the spell together. The show plays through July 11. (619) 235-8025.

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