DALLAS TOWNSHIP — The unloved, under-nourished youngsters at Dotheboys Hall are hoping for porridge, but Mrs. Squeers has a spoonful of foul-tasting medicine for each of them instead.
Oh, tomorrow’s breakfast? She’s planning liver soup.
As if the Dotheboys meal plan wasn’t enough to make you shudder, Schoolmaster Squeers has a habit of beating his young charges. “Behave, I say,” he threatens them. “Or I’ll take the skin off your backs.”
“I don’t know what happened in his life to make him that way, but he just enjoys being cruel,” said Jacob Schweiger, of Barton, N.Y., who will portray the heavy-handed Victorian in Misericordia University’s production of Charles Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickleby,” set for tonight through Nov. 11.
“He’s spent a big part of his life being in total control,” Schweiger said. “For him, having someone fight back (would be) a shock.”
Who might fight back? Probably not Smike, the dim-witted young man who’s never left the school despite being years older than the rest of the boys.
Pushed to the floor and beaten for neglecting his barnyard chores — and mocked for daring to think someone, somewhere, might have sent him a message — Smike laments his sad fate until the newly arrived teacher Nicholas Nickleby urges him to brush himself off.
“I will be your friend,” Nickleby tells Smike. “You have my word.”
Nickleby, who will eventually give Squeers his comeuppance, wouldn’t even have known about Dotheboys Hall — this “monstrous place,” as he calls it — if not for his Uncle Ralph, who recommended him for the position.
Ralph Nickleby is a miserly, villainous character, said Adam Ercolani, of Plains Township, who explained before a recent rehearsal that he drops his voice “to a gravelly tone and speak(s) at a slower pace,” the better to deliver such unfeeling lines as “Penniless relatives! Another cross to bear!” and “You must bear up against sorrow, ma’am … Husbands die every day.”
That last bit is Ralph Nickleby’s advice to his recently widowed sister-in-law — mother of Nicholas — when she asks for help for her family.
“It’s a character that’s really different from who I am,” Ercolani said. “In my own life I try to be compassionate and an advocate, working for a non-profit and volunteering for the Rainbow Alliance.”
Suffice it to say, Ralph Nickleby is not into compassion and advocacy.
Despite having to deal with people like his Uncle Ralph and Mr. Squeers, Nicholas Nickleby maintains an optimistic spirit, said Cordell Gresh, of Harveys Lake, who has the title role.
Working on the show has made Gresh eager to learn more about the life and times of plucky young Nicholas, but for now he has no time to read Dickens’ lengthy novel.
“It’s 1,000 pages,” he said. “After we finish this I’ll see if I can buy it.”
On Monday evening Gresh and other cast members were delighted to try on their costumes for the first time. Several said the old-style clothing made them feel as if they’d been swept back to Victorian England.
“This is a classic gentleman’s tie,” Gresh said, fingering the material around his neck. “It’s not like a modern tie. It’s a more like a piece of ribbon that keeps the collar in place.”
“I am blown away” by the costumes, director Jeff Kelly said, praising costumer Audrey Ide, of Dallas, for her painstaking work.
“She’s a genius,” said cast member Zoe LaPorte, of West Pittston, who was thrilled with the long dress, complete with petticoat underneath, that she would wear as the “dress shop model” in the establishment where Nicholas Nickelby’s sister, Kate, seeks a job.
“She’s wonderful,” said Olivia Katulka, of West Wyoming, who was pleased with the blue bonnet and cape she’ll be wearing as Peg, a character she described as “an older woman other people write off as daft, but I have a feeling she’s really smart and doesn’t want other people to know. She’s a very interesting woman.”
There are quite a few interesting characters in the show, Kelly said, which is one reason he wanted to bring it to the stage.
“We’ve been having 30, 40 people coming to tryouts, and we have 11, 12, 13 men to showcase, people with a lot of talent. At Misericordia that’s unheard of,” Kelly said, explaining you can usually trust Charles Dickens — author of 1,000-page books — to provide you with plenty of roles to cast.
Reach Mary Therese Biebel at 570-991-6109 or on Twitter @BiebelMT