CAMBRIDGE — “Fingersmith” has a lot of moving parts — even after you account for the turntable built into the set, the carefully coordinated video projections, and the mid-scene costume changes. There’s also the dense, twisty story itself, in which one view of events is enacted only to be jostled aside by competing versions, and the reliability of narrators is repeatedly questioned.
“It’s very layered and ambitious. Even with the generous rehearsal time we have, it’s going to be down to the wire [to get it ready] just in terms of how complex the production is,” says an otherwise confident-sounding Bill Rauch, who directs.
The play, adapted by Alexa Junge from Sarah Waters’s 2002 novel, begins performances Sunday at the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center. It’s a return to Cambridge for Rauch, who was a Harvard University undergrad during ART’s first years and directed the Lyndon Johnson study “All The Way” here in 2013 before taking it to Broadway. Like that show, which won the 2014 Tony Award for best play, “Fingersmith” debuted at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where Rauch is the artistic director.
The story is set in a Victorian London populated by pickpockets, murderers, and creepy aristocrats, where rich and poor coexist in a frequently grim dance of survival. The only thing darker than the coal smoke in the air is the humor. Amid these sickly flowers, a romance blooms.
Rauch describes the tone as “spikey,” mixing the brutal details of daily life for a cabal of thieving orphans and their conniving mistress with a good dose of gallows humor. (There are frequent references to the gallows, in fact, and there’s one in particular that seems likely to be taken for a spin or two before the close of the play.)
“It’s neither a comedy nor a tragedy. It lives in more of a Shakespearean realm where those things live side by side,” says Christina Bennett Lind, a featured actress amid the sprawling cast that plays 24 characters. “There are a lot of dark things that happen, and there are a lot of funny things. Part of the beauty of the play is those two things can happen together and you don’t have to sacrifice one for the other.”
Lind plays Maud Lilly, an orphan living with her rich uncle who, in the play’s first act, is the target of a scheme engineered by a dashing rogue (the Gentleman, played by Josiah Bania) to shuttle her off to a madhouse and swindle her fortune. The Gentleman is aided by Sue Trinder (Tracee Chimo), a young orphan groomed by one Mrs. Sucksby (Kristine Nielsen) to work as a pickpocket nearly in the shadow of where her mother was hung.
During a recent rehearsal, Lind, Chimo, and others work on a sequence that requires nuanced emotional shading along with the manipulation of props and costume pieces, all choreographed to flow in tandem with action elsewhere onstage.
Seated to the side, Junge is alternating her attention among a laptop, a script, and a yellow legal pad on which she takes notes. Rauch stands nearby, watching the action carefully. As the scene plays out, there’s a question about how much of the subtext one character is meant to pick up on.
“There are certainly many places in the play where a mystery is established and then solved,” Rauch says to the actors. “The question is: Is this a productive one of those?”
After a few run-throughs of the scene, some of the staging mechanics prove sticky. To get a better grip on how things will work onstage, a chunk of the cast plus Rauch and Junge squeeze into a side room to peer at the model for the set, designed by Christopher Acebo.
Earlier, Junge, who is best known for writing and producing duties on the television series “Friends” and “The West Wing” that earned her two Emmy Award nominations apiece, describes her attraction to the material. “Fingersmith” is one of three books by Waters, a Welsh novelist, that deal with gay women in Victorian England.
“She’s creating a new kind of fiction, a contemporary, neo-Victorian fiction that feels like it’s a story that could have been told during [Charles] Dickens’s time,” she says. “To me there’s something subversive and wonderful about creating a narrative about women [in this era] who weren’t supposed to be aggressive or assertive because that has nothing to do with the Victorian ideal of womanhood. . . . It’s almost like we’re creating a theater that didn’t exist during the time.”
In telephone interviews, Lind and Chimo cite the strength and resilience of the women they portray. “I enjoy any kind of role where I’m not someone’s wife or girlfriend, where you get to see women as people,” Chimo says, calling “Fingersmith” less of a love story than a “survival story.” The Saugus native and Obie Award-winning actress (for “Circle Mirror Transformation”) has appeared in Broadway revivals of “The Heidi Chronicles” and “Harvey,” and starred off-Broadway in “Bad Jews.”
‘In the same way that it’s a story about storytelling, it’s also a play that’s about acting.’
Maud “feels like a character that is female and written by a female, which is exciting in that it’s complex and layered and really does not embrace stereotypes,” says Lind, who appeared at the ART as Marion in 2013’s “The Heart of Robin Hood.” “There’s something really exciting to me about exploring the rarely told stories of women who don’t get to speak up very often.”
Though some characters earn our sympathy, there’s no group of clear-cut heroes sitting apart from the villains. Maud and Sue vie for authority over the story, just as they struggle to establish agency while being manipulated by unseen forces. They dupe each other while being duped. Not until the curtain goes down can the audience really be sure what’s what.
“There are layers and layers of: Who knows what, who’s playing what?” Rauch says. “And in the same way that it’s a story about storytelling, it’s also a play that’s about acting.”
And just to play it safe, it’s probably best to steer clear of those gallows.
Presented by the American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Dec. 4-Jan. 8. Tickets: From $25, 617-547-8300,firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JeremyDGoodwin.