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Imagination's Flightless 'Junebug'

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Apathy surrounds poor young Junebug, a smart but angst-ridden boy who's severely reluctant to join his school's soccer league.

Where is David Beckham when you need him?

More so, where is the soccer star's kind of dynamism when you need it? The somewhat-inert new play "Junebug and the Reverend," premiering at Imagination Stage, could use it.

"Junebug and the Reverend" is adapted from the children's book by Alice Mead, a writer admirably determined to depict kids coping with serious issues: the dissolution of a family, the incarceration of a loved one, illness and old age. Unfortunately, Mead's thematically ambitious narrative hasn't made a hugely successful transition to the medium of theater.

The Imagination Stage rendering, directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer, lacks the energy and the sense of constant revelation that often distinguish the company's shows for young audiences. Scenes sometime bog down in pauses, as if Junebug's listlessness had rubbed off on the production itself.

And actor Stephen Thomas, in the role of the protagonist, hasn't pulled off the admittedly difficult trick of making a glum dawdler seem dramatically compelling.

Among Junebug's sobering problems, he recently has moved; there are bullies in his new fourth-grade class; and, most distressingly, his father is in jail and his mother, who works in a retirement community, has a new boyfriend.

As playwright Martha King De Silva makes plain, these developments have temporarily clouded Junebug's personality, making him sulky and pessimistic, and intensifying his obsession with sailboats. Before his mood starts to improve, he will have to reconcile himself to his new home and school environments -- and he will have to don that soccer shirt.

The show does have some cards up its sleeve. Ethan Sinnott's striking set -- a dock and a towering white lighthouse -- embodies Junebug's maritime obsession, while signaling that the boy is, spiritually, out of his depths. At certain points, Colin K. Bills completes the symbolism with lighting effects that swirl, like rippling water, along the blue floor.

A number of performances, including Taifa Harris as Junebug's mother, seem unnecessarily subdued. But Jefferson A. Russell has fine-tuned some enjoyably churlish mannerisms for the Reverend -- a grunting, shuffling elderly curmudgeon who, in a development meant to be emotionally profound, eventually wins Junebug's trust and affection.

It's Fatima Quander, though, who really perks up the production in her brief, funny scenes as Ms. Williams, a tai chi-practicing retiree who goes jogging in an electric-blue tracksuit, carrying electric-blue weights (Kathleen Geldard designed the costumes). Ms. Williams gives Junebug a few "Karate Kid"-style pointers on dealing with bullies, and life.

Still, it's hard to empathize fully with Junebug's saga as dramatized by De Silva, who has a track record as a writer of plays for adults (Charter Theatre mounted "Stretch Marks," nominated for the Charles MacArthur Award for outstanding new play in 2002).

In particular, kicking this play off with a dream sequence (a nightmare about a boat) was probably a mistake -- those initial moments ratchet up dramatic tension only to dissipate it, giving a rather anticlimactic feel to the rest of Act 1. Subsequently, De Silva introduces the crucial Junebug/Reverend rapport in an awfully unexciting manner -- the boy's mother sends the duo off on an early morning walk with the less-than-thrilling observation, "You can bond."

With such an exhortation ringing in Junebug's ears, can soccer really look all that bad?

Junebug and the Reverend, by Martha King De Silva, based on the book by Alice Mead. Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer; sound design, Neil McFadden; choreography, Krissie Marty; props design, Lindsay Miller. With Zack Colonna, James J. Johnson, Sasha Olinick and G. Alverez Reid. About 90 minutes. Through March 25 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Call 301-280-1660 or visit http://www.imaginationstage.org.

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