In children’s shows, colorful characters from America’s past
By Celia Wren
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Plucky pioneers, medicine-show hucksters, a Union Army balloonist and other colorful figures from America’s past are bustling through two local children’s productions. Over in Glen Echo, Adventure Theatre MTC is presenting “A Little House Christmas,” a pint-sized entertainment based on the beloved books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Meanwhile, the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater houses the world premiere of “The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg,” a tall tale set during the Civil War. All in all, it’s enough sepia-toned Americana to make the hippest Washingtonian say, “I’ll be jiggered!”
Of the two shows, “Mostly True Adventures” is the more daring and artful. Adapted by Tom Isbell (“Teddy Roosevelt and the Treasure of Ursa Major”) from the Newbery Honor-winning book by Rodman Philbrick, the play centers on Homer Figg, a 12-year-old orphan in Civil War America. After his 17-year-old brother is illegally sold into the Union Army, Homer sets out on a rescue mission that will require him to hobnob with con artists, Confederate soldiers, Underground Railroad leaders and other memorable types. Determined and resourceful, if given to stretching the truth, Homer ultimately saves his brother, and helps turn the Battle of Gettysburg, too.
In a clever touch, director Gregg Henry suggests that Homer’s exploits are coming at us from across the footlights of a 19th-century theater. Designer Dan Conway’s set encompasses a wooden stage and a proscenium; during Homer’s travels, a backdrop relays etching-like pictures whose components sometimes move, as if manipulated by 19th-century stagehands: When Homer hitches a ride on a hot-air balloon, for instance, glimpses of basket and buoyed fabric swing by.
The conceit complements a narrative that’s full of hijinks and enjoyably melodramatic heroes and villains. (Kathleen Geldard designed the atmospheric costumes.) Looking every inch the whippersnapper, Ryan Mercer infuses Homer with gutsy waifishness. But it’s the role-juggling supporting actors who appear to be having the most fun. For instance, Michael Russotto larks through the personas of -- among others -- a dim-witted clergyman, Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and a cook whose effusive motherliness causes Homer acute embarrassment.
In other piquant turns, Joe Brack and Michael V. Sazonov swashbuckle around as none-too-bright brigands named Smelt and Stink; and Veronica del Cerro drolly conjures a ladylike scam artist and an earthy tattooed lady. Michael Glenn and James J. Johnson gracefully anchor the more serious roles of Mr. Brewster and Samuel Reed, two Underground Railroad operatives whose courageous actions allow the play to address the issues of slavery and abolition.
The Civil War also figures -- indirectly -- in “A Little House Christmas,” directed by Serge Seiden. Packaging an anecdote about a cozily hardscrabble prairie yuletide, James DeVita’s script introduces the figure of Uncle George, a Civil War veteran who is Pa Ingalls’s brother. Haunted by memories, Uncle George hovers mutely on the sidelines of the Ingalls family’s festivities until the attentiveness of young Laura cheers him up, leading to a joyous square dance. The incident drives home the play’s message: that Christmas is about generosity and togetherness, not material treats.
Robbie Gay’s ebulliently folksy portrayal of Pa and Jonathan Feuer’s quietly troubled depiction of George lend soul to the production, which can feel a little like an installation at a Homestead Act theme park. Young actors Katie Littleton and Maya Brettell are creditably spunky and decorous as Laura and Mary Ingalls, and a ringlet-sporting Caroline Coleman is splendidly disdainful as Nellie, the meanest girl in town.
On opening weekend, young audiences seemed spellbound by the 45-minute production, which unfurls on a log-cabin set designed by Jacob K. Ewonus. But adults may yawn at all the aw-shucks earnestness: Pa is playing the fiddle! Ma is making ornaments from lace and dried flowers! The creek is rising again!
Landsakes! Where’s the Ghost of Christmas Present when you need him?