Start with a big, old-fashioned attic, cluttered with trunks and tennis rackets and hat boxes. Windows peek at the Manhattan skyline. Scenic designer Klyph Stanford’s large, welcoming semicircular set welcomes kids in for a ripping yarn, even before they settle onto the benches at Adventure Theatre MTC. They won’t be disappointed.
Guest director Colin Hovde of Theater Alliance has put “Stuart Little” onstage with the larger-than-life energy needed to keep the youngest kids enthralled without sacrificing the innate charm of E.B. White’s often ruminative tale by forcing his cast over the top. Like that third bowl of porridge for Goldilocks, this one is just right.
Adaptor Joseph Robinette has dispensed with White’s extended literary narratives and gone for the action sequences, which makes sense for this 50-minute one-act, geared to the youngest children on up. The book itself is a quick, gently satiric grown-up read. Even with Garth Williams’s charming illustrations, it is a book that most small children should hear read aloud — or see acted out, even in abridged form.
A vintage radio predicts rain, and four adult actors bound into the attic, playing kids who decide to spend the day dramatizing their favorite story, “Stuart Little,” grabbing any props they can find. They start with the opening lines of White’s 1945 book:
“When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse. The truth of the matter was, the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way.”
At which point Stuart himself (Chris Dinolfo) pops out of a trunk, as if responding to an imagined standing ovation. In a green-and-white sweater vest, mouse ears and a little mouse nose with whiskers, the lanky Dinolfo cuts a dapper figure as Stuart — happy and bumptious and fond of quoting speeches from films.
Stuart and his human pals, played by the protean foursome of Tracey Farrar, Emily Zickler, Andrew Ferlo and Philip Reid, jump into a selection of Stuart’s adventures. They get a lot of help from Kendra Rai’s bright, exaggerated 1940s-era costumes and Andrea “Dre” Moore’s whimsical props, designed to emphasize, despite the actors’ similarity in stature, the difference between Stuart and his humans.
A ping-pong ball rolls offstage in normal size, but returns as a big white beach ball in Stuart’s hands. When he tries to demonstrate his strength to the cat Snowbell (Reid, laughing evil in a furry white hooded jacket with ears), Stuart accidentally gets rolled up in a window shade. We see him stretch out the shade pull with all his might, but his slingshot roll-up happens just out of sight.
In other adventures, Stuart races a rich dentist’s model boat on a pond in Central Park and wins the day. He befriends a green-and-red bird named Margalo (Zickler, striking ballet poses in feathered hat and boa) rescued by Mrs. Little (Farrar) and saves her from Snowbell. Margalo later flies off after an anonymous warning that one of Snowbell’s cohorts will come after her. Stuart runs away to find his adored wren. The dentist gives him a bright red model car to drive. It zips across the stage.
The dentist, by the way, is pulling a man’s tooth when Stuart visits. Played for broad comic effect, the scene could be a setback for parents hoping to get kids to relax about the dentist.
While on the road, Stuart substitute teaches for a day. He and his students make up laws, the key ones being “nix on swipin’ anything” and “not being mean.”
The play ends on a note of modern-style positivity and a call for kids to celebrate their imaginations. It is a departure from the book’s muted and unresolved finale, in which Stuart heads out into the world, but it fits nicely with the energy that has come before.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
By E.B. White, adapted for the stage by Joseph Robinette. Directed by Colin Hovde. Lighting design, Jason Arnold; sound, Matt Otto. About 50 minutes, with no intermission. Recommended by the theater company for all ages. Tickets: $19. Through Oct. 26 at Adventure Theatre MTC, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo, Md., in Glen Echo Park. For more information, go to adventuretheatre-mtc.org or call 301-634-2270.