I’D NOT BEEN in Richard Thompson’s house more than a few minutes and I was already wondering why he had let in a big jackass. Or, to be more precise, the head of a jackass. The donkey-faced prop sat on Thompson’s dining table like a strange main course, except that it was papier-mâché and plastic with googly cartoon eyes. It stared back as if to say: Welcome to my world.
“Our house is full of costumes, props and art supplies,” said Thompson, the celebrated “Cul de Sac” cartoonist, “some of it hard to explain or justify.”
The mule head, from a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” belonged to Amy Thompson, Richard’s wife, who has taught theater in educational settings, including the Folger Shakespeare Library. This scene was in early 2011, in the Thompsons’ Arlington, Va., home. And up till last week, I had no deeper concept of how the husband’s and wife’s lives intertwined creatively, as two very different types of artists.
When we headed down into Richard’s subterranean basement on that late-winter day, it was like entering the cartoonist’s gray matter. Thompson pointed slowly to objects in his art studio — his movements already showing signs of his Parkinson’s disease — and I began to understand from these books and brushes and sketches and sculptures some of what moves this cartoonist’s mind.
“Cul de Sac,” Thompson’s Reuben Award-winning comic strip — now receiving a “by kids, for kids” stage adaptation in Arlington — was itself his peculiar window into the suburban childhood. The tales of the Otterloop family — joyous 4-year-old extrovert Alice, fearful and introverted brother Petey, and their patient parents — were genius in both their distinctively skewed specificity and their truthful universality. The comic won over millions of fans, including some of Richard’s fellow cartooning greats such as Bill Watterson and Patrick Oliphant.
Richard, who retired the Washington Post-born strip as his Parkinson’s diminished his abilities to create it, was reluctant to let anyone adapt his strip for the stage — until now.
The Encore Stage & Studio community theater production of “Cul de Sac” magically captures the spirit of the comic strip but in a manner that feels fully realized for the specifics of the stage. That is due, in no small part, to Amy Thompson.
Amy is the playwright and force behind this version of “Cul de Sac,” and only now, years after I first met her, do I understand why Richard would only let his wife guide the adaptation of his creation.
As an artist, Amy has her own gift for shaping story, and likewise an ear for the humorous human observation. But in another way, she is the mirror opposite of her spouse. She helps create sets and props and guide stage design. In other words: What Richard has done in his mind and with a two-dimensional line, Amy does in the glorious depth of three-dimension.
Last weekend, as I watched the world premiere of this adaptation (the play continues through this weekend). I was caught up in the degree to which a wife has helped render, in rounded physical space, the colorful characters and immersive world of her husband. It is like going through a looking glass of complementary creativity.
The set design captures Richard’s idiosyncratic line of kinetic wobbliness. The beams of the family home feel fresh off his dip pen. The visual “driveway” gag of lanky Dad shoehorning into his uber-compact car is realized in a way that nods to the strip, but then — like so much else here — paves some of its own path, too. By letting us step into the strip as stage, we get to peer around corners at new dimensions.
(Amy Thompson does have deft help: Chuck Leonard directs; Debra Leonard guides costume and makeup; Gary Hauptman is on lighting and Drew Moberley on sound; Kristen Jepperson and Marji Jepperson aid with sets and props; with original music by Matthew Heap.)
I was seated behind Richard Thompson at the premiere, and at one point, I wondered what it must be like to view this through his eyes: Young Gabriella Flanagan owning her moments as the irrepressibly emotive Alice, or Xander Tilock inhabiting Richard’s most personal character, the comics-creating Petey. Watching cartoonist Richard Thompson watch cartoonist Petey Otterloop draw “Toad Zombies” (thus, a cartoon within a cartoon) at summer comics camp was like staring at M.C. Escher’s twinned hands drawing each other.
Amy Thompson has translated not just her husband’s inks, but also how he thinks. This is now their warmly truthful meditation on childhood. The production is “by kids, for kids” — yet renders us all young again.
“Cul de Sac” continues Friday and Saturday and ends Sunday at Encore Stage & Studio, Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre, in Arlington, Va.; (703) 548-1154; $10-$15. Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes (with 15-minute intermission).