CAMBRIDGE — Nothing is at it seems in “Fingersmith,” Alexa Junge’s nimble stage adaptation of Sarah Waters’s suspenseful crime novel set in Victorian England. The book is a 500-plus page-turner with several moments in which the entire story changes course in a single sentence. Allegiances shift. Identities change. The landed gentry are hypocritical and crass. The petty thieves have a certain kind of class.
The adaptation, originally produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and now at the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center through Jan. 8, opens with a pickpocket named Sue Trinder introducing herself directly to the audience, standing in front of a Dickensian London tenement. Sue lives in a below-the-law establishment, where thieves hock their goods. The mistress of the house, a gray-haired woman named Mrs. Sucksby, runs a “baby farm,” a place where young women drop off out-of-wedlock infants.
In walks a man who everyone simply calls Gentleman, a con man with well-tailored clothes and a ravishing smile. He recruits Sue to be the maid to a lady named Maud who lives in the countryside with her uppercrust uncle, who is working on a mysterious “great dictionary.” Sue must convince the heiress to marry Gentleman, but then she and Gentleman will abandon Maud at a psychiatric institution and divvy up her fortune. Sue agrees, learning to curtsy even as she curses.
And then we’re off, in a fast-paced adaptation that deftly brings the key points of the novel to the stage. Women are at the center of this tale, which asks questions about the role of birth, identity, gender preference, sex, power, and class. What makes a so-called lady in a society in which women have no power, regardless of social status? How can good prevail in a system in which servants abuse children and where the institutions meant to protect people swallow them up?
Sue and Maud seem to understand those questions, and they develop a love interest in each other as Gentleman works his wily ways. The plot turns this way and that, upending everyone’s perception of reality. The “dictionary” isn’t so great after all; it’s not for children’s eyes. Women are objectified and abused. Sex is a commodity. Characters discover that the life they knew was nothing but a lie.
Director Bill Rauch moves the story along at a rapid pace, segueing from the past to the present and back again. The actors directly address the audience with a wink-wink to the fact that this is a play. The point of view shifts gracefully from one to the other.
The acting is without a fault. Tracee Chimo inhabits Sue, creating a character who at first accepts the life she was born into but then grows as her circumstances change. She is earthen, while Christina Bennett Lind is all alabaster and buttoned-up as the heiress Maud. Josiah Bania’s Gentleman is seductive without being oily. And Kristine Nielsen is at once conniving and maternal as Mrs. Sucksby. Several actors play multiple roles with ease.
The twisting — and twisted — story unfolds on Christopher Acebo’s two-tiered set, which is dismally gray and dark in both the London slum and the country manor. A simple scrim depicts images of horror, and a revolving turntable works magic with a canoe and a carriage. Jen Shriever’s lighting underscores the plot, creating an ominous feel even when the stage is backlit with a huge moon and a starry sky. Andre Pluess’s sound design is equally ominous: A simple bell becomes a symbol of misogyny.
This is a world in which women’s roles are defined by men. Both Sue and Maud speak to the audience at different times, claiming “This is my story now.” But who gets to tell the story? In this case, it’s the survivors. The two women are trapped in a society in which everything — and I mean everything — is a lie. Fine frocks don’t make a lady. And a country manor doesn’t make a gentleman.
The female characters didn’t ask for the lives they have been handed, yet they persevere. And what’s love got to do with it? In the end, everything. One character makes a huge sacrifice. And a mother says what every mother says at some point: “I did the best I could.”
By Alexa Junge, adapted from the novel by Sarah Waters. Directed by Bill Rauch. Presented by American Repertory Theater, originally produced by Oregon Shakespeare Festival. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through Jan 8. Tickets start at $25; 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Patti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.