Unlike movies or television shows, all moments spent at the theater are new, the live action unfolding in different ways each time it's played. But plays seen over and over tend to get familiar. So, good or bad, there's something distinctively exciting about seeing the premiere of a new show.
The experience is doubly pleasant when the play is as delightful as "Rootabaga Country," now at the Wordstage Theatre, or as riveting as two one-acts, "The Home Visit" and "Fieldstones," winners of Little Theatre of Alexandria's One-Act-Play Competition. All three plays, newborns on the stage, are fresh, entertaining and thought-provoking. Though they suffer from some clumsiness that is the mark of first plays, the rough spots are only mildly bothersome, slight turbulence on an otherwise smooth flight.
At the top of this accomplished trio is "Rootabaga Country," an adaptation by Wordstage artistic director Jim Humphrey of Carl Sandburg's "Rootabaga Stories," tales the author wrote for his young daughters. While the place resembles the American Midwest, full of farmers, small towns and wide fields, the similarities end quickly as the whimsical stories pour forth. A cast of three women and four men, dressed in jeans, white shirts and red high-top sneakers, introduces the audience to these fanciful places and more than 40 characters, with such crazy names as the Village of the Cream Puffs, Blixie Bimber, Poker Face the Baboon and Rags Habakuk.
There are only minimal props -- a sheet, a piece of string, some glitter -- and it's no loss. The magic of the show comes from the words. The wordplay reminds one instantly of Dr. Seuss and Willy Wonka, words so wonderful that they manage to spark the imagination into creating a whole world in the mind's eye.
And what a world Rootabaga Country is. To get there you purchase a giant yellow ticket with a blue splosh across it and take the train "as far as the tracks went off into the blue, blue sky." You've arrived when the way goes from "straight to zig-zag and the pigs have bibs on." And to add to the madness, the chimneys dance in the cellar and the cellars sit on the roof, doorbells are on the windows and umbrellas tell stories in the kitchen.
The ensemble shines with this kooky material, energetic and enthusiastic in the midst of the lunacy. It's directed with an airy mood, light as balloons, by Karen Berman, who manages to deliver the childish innocence and sly savvy in equal doses. It's to the production's credit that both children and adults will enjoy it.
The terrible real world is right where the two plays performed by Little Theatre of Alexandria land you, a departure from the lovely fantasyland of "Rootabaga Country." This is the world as it exists -- full of disillusionment, depression and death. Neither is easy going, though both manage some humor amid the pathos.
The better of the pair is actually the second-place winner, "Fieldstones" by Alan Zuberbuehler. The plot concerns two mismatched brothers who come together after a dozen years because of the death of their father. The younger Paul (John Will), neat and successful, shows up at the squalid digs of the down-and-out Freddy (Michael Hamburg) to deliver the news and offer Freddy another chance. The iconoclastic Freddy was written out of his inheritance -- the family farm -- when he went to prison for draft evasion during the Vietnam war. But before he died, his father gave it back -- with a damning twist.
The story is nothing new, really -- siblings always have fought, but familial back-and-forth makes for good drama. "You say things change, but you're still a jerk just the same," spits out Freddy, and we know the play is true to life. All the anger, jealousies and expectations of the often-grueling family experience rise quickly to the surface even in simple exchanges. "I didn't come looking for a fight," says Paul. "Relax," answers Freddy, "it comes looking for us."
Will, though sometimes too stiff and occasionally fluffing a line, is an apt straight arrow as the good son. It's painful to be so perfect. But the real pain comes deftly from Hamburg as the failing Freddy. Blustery and bloated, he's a good man given up on life and satisfied to sink. Hamburg manages to make this slob a hero, though a pathetic one. Director Donald Neal keeps the pace moving when it could become boring. Little happens really -- the play is only a long conversation -- but what does go on is profound.
Not so with the first-place winner, "The Home Visit" by H.V. Argers. For the duo in this drama, life seems to be a long nightmare. Social worker Lou Randolph (Jolanda L. Johnson), cool and bureaucratic, visits an old and crotchety man, Sam Silver (Jay L. Wolff). She's there to help, but her icy manner and fill-in-the-form mentality alienates Silver, a Holocaust survivor who refuses to be "a number in someone else's report."
Most of the action is entirely predictable and preachy, a problemfest waiting to be resolved. We know almost immediately that Lou will be melted down into revealing why she's so frigid and that Sam will turn out to be a kind soul. To get us there, the playwright insists on giving the pair shocking histories. It's not effective, because terror from without is never quite so horrible as terror from within. So these two become only cliched victims, who by the end save themselves.
Still, there's something noble in it; there always is when the beaten-down manage to rise again. So as Sam offers tea to his new friend and utters an ouch line like "Under the paper clips, there's a person," one smiles in spite of the cloying sweetness.
"Rootabaga Country" continues at the Gunston Arts Center Library Theater in Arlington tomorrow and Saturday and the one-act plays can be seen tonight, tomorrow and Saturday at the Little Theatre of Alexandria.