Adapted in 1980 by Tony Award-winning playwright David Edgar, the play is
PlayMakers’ biggest production ever. The
actors — seven guest artists and 18 from
the resident company — will rehearse for
more than 300 hours before the first public
performance Nov. 11. Groundwork, however, began months earlier.
Haj, who has played the part of Nicholas
before, said he and co-director Tom Quain-tance made table-size spreadsheets charting
the scenes and characters to help cast roles.
They met with designers to discuss costumes, the set, lighting and music.
Their objective is transparency. Sound
effects and costume changes happen on
stage. Actors play musical instruments, perform their English characters and narrate
using American voices. Props change from
chairs to wheelchairs, from whipping posts
to easels and from staircases to carriages.
“It’s a kind of theater where we see the
strings, where we don’t pretend that it’s
happening magically,” Haj said. “We see the
people lurking in the room. We see it being
made in front of us.”
The audience won’t need to work too
hard to imagine Dickensian England. Set
designer McKay Coble ’ 79, who also is
UNC’s faculty chair, has designed one of the
largest sets in PlayMakers’ history.
It began in March, as a sketch on the
back of the script. Coble combed Google,
books and even Restoration Hardware catalogs for depictions of 1830s London.
About 300 hours of research resulted in a
scale model, and more than 35 people
brought the 4,000-square-foot set to life.
The set — a London street almost 75
feet long — stretches into the audience. The
city layers are illustrated in overlapping
wooden platforms that reach 19 feet high,
with three tons of rusted steel evoking an
industrial playground of nooks and crannies.
Laundry lines stretch from newly painted
windows to broken ones, with dark rags at
one end and bright capes at the other. Here,
life crumbles and rebuilds in chorus. The
world of the rich overshadows the poor.
“It’s kind of a big machine of government corruption, of time and of industry,
and how it worked on the people at the
time and how it’s working on us now,”
Allison Altman ’09, who plays Fanny
and Madeline, recites lines everywhere —
from the bathroom to the swimming pool.
More amusing to her roommates, Altman
shifts from her American accent to three
“I play little bits where I make up a situation ... ‘What would Fanny or Madeline
or whoever do?’ ” she said. “It doesn’t even
have to be realistic — something as simple
as cleaning my kitchen and cleaning like
Fanny would clean.”
She and Ray Dooley, who plays Ralph
Nickleby, prepared by researching Dickens
and reading the novel.
“What we see on the page of the adaptation is, necessarily, the tip of the iceberg,
but in consultation with Dickens, we hope
to give a sense of the weight and mass that
lies under the surface,” said Dooley,
who is also an acting
professor and head of
the professional acting training program.
The text especially helps actors
Meanza ’04 (MA),
who plays six characters, said Dickens
distinguishes characters in physicality,
gesture and voice.
moment you walk
on stage, the audience should have an
idea of what that character is like,” said
Meanza, PlayMakers’ director of education
and outreach. “Each character has to have
an energy that differentiates one from the
other for the actor as well as the audience.”
Each character has been painstakingly
researched and each actor dressed by costume designer Jan Chambers and her team.
Last summer, Chambers explored the era’s
colors, textures and fashions, eventually
drafting several hundred character sketches.
“Costumes set the period,” said Chambers, who is an assistant design professor.
“They can help the audience to understand
the progression of character ... [and] the
relationships of one character to another.”
Blacks, browns, greens and rusts cloak the
actors with the industrial atmosphere.
Women cross the floor in slippers, capes and
dresses with huge sleeves and skirts with layers of puffs and folds. The men follow with
frockcoats, narrow-waisted vests and high
collars. Brighter colors denote wealthier
characters, and dull-colored rags mark the
More than 80 fittings were needed to
alter the 700 costume pieces, many of
which the company borrowed from other
theater collections, including Wake Forest
and Duke universities. Fabric has been dyed
and distressed, shoe soles rubberized and
hair styled or cut to fit the period.
“You really have to help the actor trans-
form from one moment to the next and
from one character
to the next,” Cham-
bers said. “Costumes
help engage the
characters and set
denote a world
divided by money —
who has it, who
doesn’t and what
people are willing to
do about that differ-
this conflict through
to the last scene.
Carolers bound on
stage, singing God
Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. The Nicklebys
celebrate their happy reunion. Then,
Nicholas spots a poor boy shivering out-
side. He looks in despair at his mother and
sister, unsure what to do.
So he walks outside, picks up the boy
and turns to the audience.
The Christmas carol continues.
“O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.”
— Meagan Racey
See more about preparations
for Nicholas Nickleby at