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'Fingersmith' a twisting thriller with love

Early in "Fingersmith," young pickpocket and lady's maid Sue Trinder (Sara Bruner) is undressing young heiress Maud Lilly (Erica Sullivan) in her room at Maud's uncle's country estate. A dress comes off, petticoats fly, a crinoline, a corset, all the foofaraw in which upper-class Victorian ladies were bundled.

As the scene offers glimpses of social class and the status of women in 19th century England, an unmistakable sexual current begins to flow between Sue and Maud. It grows. Time slows.

For a white, protestant Englishman of means, Victorian England was a swell place. For most everybody else, not so much. The Welsh novelist Sarah Waters re-imagined this Dickensian world in detail, added some forbidden sex and a twisting plot, ran it all through a feminist lens and created "Fingersmith," a 2002 page-turner nominated for a Booker Prize.

Deftly adapted into a three-hour play by Alexa Junge and tautly directed by Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch, the play debuted Sunday afternoon at the OSF's Angus Bowmer Theatre like a three-hour jolt of electricity.

Sue, an orphan, has been raised in an Oliver Twist-style den of thieves by Mrs. Sucksby (Kate Mulligan), a "baby farmer," as women were called who took in babies for money and raised them in wildly varying conditions. One day she's enlisted in the plot of Mrs. Sucksby's friend Gentleman (Elijah Alexander) to seduce the wealthy Maud, then have her committed to a lunatic asylum and keep her fortune, which Gentleman will split with Sue.

Maud, also an orphan, lives a life of material privilege and spiritual poverty in the secluded estate of her controlling uncle, Christopher Lilly (Peter Frechette), who is working on a mysterious dictionary that's actually a bibliography of Victorian pornography. Sue starts to have feelings for Maud, but she sticks with the scheme. After all, what could go wrong?

Nothing in this world is quite what it seems, including some characters. There's an old saw that if you're in a card game and don't know who the fish is, you're the fish. “Fingersmith" takes this further. You may know who the fish is, but the pond may not be what you think. "Fingersmith" underscores this dizzying effect by ending the first act with a dandy of a cliffhanger, then switching perspectives in the second act.

"Fingersmith" (slang for pickpocket) is a play without a fourth wall. The characters often speak directly to us, even in the middle of various actions. There is clever use of dramatic irony, in which we know things characters don't.

Christopher Acebo's deliciously hardscrabble set, with its forced perspective of crime-infested Lant Street, handily morphs into Lilly's mansion and Mrs. Sucksby's hovel. Deborah Dryden's costumes range from the expensive finery of Maud and Gentleman to the fetid rags of the denizens of Mrs. Sucksby's and all that amazing Victorian underwear.

Video and projections by Shawn Sagady flush out this world we thought we knew from a million old novels and plays and movies. There are some highly theatrical effects, including punishments and some of the abuse that passed as “treatment” for the insane.

Waters has been called a feminist Dickens. That's not bad. The play has a burning sense of social injustice, and it presents its lesbian love as an existential political act of reclaiming one's identity as well as a note of sweetness in an unjust, patriarchal world. Crucially, the sexual politics emerge from the heart of the story and don't feel forced or preachy.

Bruner's Sue is a smart (although illiterate), tough-as-nails young woman with a credible Cockney accent and an amazing arc that takes her from thief to conspirator to maid to lover to some other things we won't mention, other than to say the conditions in the insane asylums of the day were horrific. As Maud, Sullivan rivets the audience as she re-invents herself several times. These are bravura performances by two gifted young actors, and they project a delicious sexual chemistry to boot.

Mulligan creates a memorable, three-dimensional Mrs. Sucksby, who is more than she seems. Alexander and Frechette are wonderful, deplorable villains that we, along with the sisterhood, love to hate.

“Fingersmith” is a breathless entertainment with engaging characters who have everything at stake. The Victorian world may never look quite the same.

Reach Medford freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Sue Trinder (Sara Bruner, left) seeks to know more about Maud Lilly (Erica Sullivan). Photo by Jenny Graham.