The eyes of 150 young children were transfixed on the stage of the Largo/Kettering Community Center, watching a wolf try to weasel his way into a house where a little girl was home alone. While the wolf donned disguises, first as a mail carrier, then a milkman, the children exhorted the girl, "Don't open the door to strangers when your parents aren't home!"
In another scene, a woman dressed in bright colors and dangling jewelry tried to entice two youngsters to take some of her sweets "that make you happy." The two "just said no" and then explained to the captivated and quiet audience that "your mind is your greatest gift, so don't take anything that could hurt it."
The preschoolers and young elementary-age children watching the performance last week soaked up the lifesaving messages offered by the four professional actors of the Library Theatre. The group, in its 20th season, modernizes well-known fables and fairy tales to include anti-drug and child-safety messages.
The quartet performs for children in schools and libraries in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia during the school year and in the summer. They travel throughout the region giving between 500 and 600 performances a year on an annual budget of $350,000, obtained through donations from corporations and state and local art councils.
The performances are free to the public in the summer, but during the academic year, schools and libraries are charged a fee, said Laura Whitmore, publicist for Library Theatre.
Although they work to entertain and captivate the children, the actors are also intent on combating the image of violence and drugs. To accomplish this, the actors weave a story with a strong subliminal message.
In one act, two brothers sing a rap song about their third brother, who is so "weird" because he reads all the time.
During a harrowing adventure in which the three are confronted by a wicked witch, it is the third brother who saves them by using knowledge gained from books, forever earning his brothers' gratitude.
The troupe knows its audience well.
Acts are performed quickly without belaboring any one point, and the stage, designed by a professional set designer from the University of Maryland, changes without pause along with the stories.
"We come up with story ideas based on feedback we get from parents and teachers," Whitmore said. Once an idea based on a fairy tale is formed, a scriptwriter is hired to rework the fable, giving it a modern slant that children can understand.
The actors -- John Paul Boukis, 19, a student at Georgetown University; Aleta Margolis, 23, a local actress; Rachel McClellan, 23, who runs a student outreach program; and Wanda Whiteside, 33, a freelance writer -- vary on their reasons for creating time for rehearsals and a grueling schedule that can have them singing and dancing their way through 12 to 15 performances a week. But they all agree that theater is one of the best ways of sending children a message that could save their lives.
"They're learning, even if it's unconsciously; it's sticking in their minds," Whiteside said.