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At DCT's Tuck Everlasting, there's teen undead love without the vampires; Cara Mia visits The House on Mango Street

Lauren Rosen and Nolan Alan Martin are well cast as the star-crossed young lovers in Dallas Children's Theater's Tuck Everlasting.
Linda Blase

Before the hunky undead teens of Twilight, there were the hunky immortal brothers of Tuck Everlasting, the 1975 young adult novel by Natalie Babbitt. The popular book was adapted for the stage by Mark J. Frattaroli and in the lovely production now running at Dallas Children's Theater, the story focuses on a gentler version of the will-she-or-won't-she dilemma woven through those Stephenie Meyer vampire stories.

The girl in the play is 10-year-old Winnie Foster (played by Lauren Rosen), the lonely only child of a wealthy small-town family somewhere in rural 1880s America. So bored she talks to garden toads, Winnie wanders into the woods one summer day and discovers young Jesse Tuck (Nolan Alan Martin), sipping from the spring whose magical water has made his family immune to disease, injury, aging and death. Jesse is perpetually 17 and has been for decades. His older brother Miles (Jason Kennedy) already has outlived a wife and children. The boys' parents (Kelly Pino, Sonny Franks) keep the family constantly on the move to avoid awkward questions from nosy neighbors. Every 10 years, they ride back into tiny Tree Gap—like the plot of Brigadoon in reverse.

Winnie takes a shine to the Tucks, and they to her. She's drawn to gentle, handsome Jesse, who decides to tell her all. Lurking in the shadows, however, is a mysterious stranger (Gregory Lush) who wants to exploit the Tucks and market the miracle water as a high-priced tonic. Will he blow the Tucks' cover? And will Winnie sip from the spring to spend eternity with Jesse?

From such wistful emotions are timeless tales of star-crossed teenage lovers made. And Tuck Everlasting is so full of wist, you'll be daubing your eyes before intermission. Aimed at audiences age 10 and up, the production, directed by Artie Olaisen and impeccably designed by Randel Wright (scenery) and Linda Blase (lighting), has a languid, enchanted quality. Throughout the story, characters step forth to speak bits of poetry about hot August days and the colors of a sunset, described as "a soft red sliding egg yolk."

It's a sweet, thought-provoking play complemented by strong, sincere performances. Rosen, though she looks older then 10, makes Winnie spunky but vulnerable. Martin, as Jesse, is definitely heartthrob material. As the two older folk in the story, Jane Willingham and Larry Randolph lend their uniquely textured voices to the ensemble.

Take your young teens to see Tuck. And tuck some extra tissues in your pocket for the daubing.

An interesting companion piece to Tuck Everlasting could be The House on Mango Street, another coming-of-age story based on a much-loved novel for young readers. Cara Mia Theatre Company is doing the play right now, adapted by Amy Ludwig from the best-selling 1984 book by San Antonio writer Sandra Cisneros.

Less a traditional play than a slice of story-theater, Mango Street runs through a chain of vignettes about the residents of one busy block in the barrio. The main character and narrator, gawky schoolgirl Esperanza (Ana Gonzalez), hangs out on her front stoop, watching and listening to the colorful characters who bop in and out of the other apartments. Her adult self (Pilar Ortiz) is also onstage, giving a mature perspective to the same shared memories in a simultaneous flow of narration. Six other actors—Stephanie Cleghorn, Frida Espinosa Muller, Ivan Jasso, Amir Razavi, Priscilla Rice and Rafael Tamayo—play everyone else, from babies to abuelitos.

Under the direction of David Lozano, the production works best when the performers are most physical. There's a lot of pantomime, including some imaginatively choreographed car and bicycle rides. If only the play took its audience on more of a meaningful journey, rather than just two hours of disconnected scenes. Esperanza is a likable kid character—and likably played by the bouncy Gonzalez—and it would be nice to learn more about her, rather than just hear her describing everyone else's romances and tragedies.

At least you can hear Gonzalez when she's speaking. The Latino Cultural Center, with its confounding acoustics, forces the actors to work extra hard to get the words to the audience's ears. Gonzalez shouts all her lines straight out to the house. Ortiz, whose voice is about half the volume of her young castmate's, could benefit from electronic amplification as she lowers her head to read lines from a notebook in a soft, bland monotone (as she did in the preview performance reviewed).

The craft of acting isn't as simple as memorizing lines and speaking them trippingly on the tongue, of course. There's so much more to it. The differences between good acting and bad are only too apparent after seeing Dallas Theater Center's superbly acted Dividing the Estate, followed a few nights later by an amateur group's attempts at two other Horton Foote plays, The Old Beginning and John Turner Davis.

First United Methodist Church, which has a strong reputation for putting on musicals and family-friendly comedies in its Rotunda Series, joins the ongoing citywide Foote Festival with the two one-acts, which are actually a couple of early 1950s TV scripts Foote wrote for the live TV drama anthology Philco Television Playhouse.

The better of the pair is John Turner Davis, a haunting little playlet, directed by Karon L. Cogdill, about an abandoned child in 1930s Harrison, Texas (Foote's fictional version of Wharton, his hometown). Plucky J.T. Davis (played by Mia Sanchez), left behind by her folks, itinerant cotton pickers, wants to believe they'll be back for her. But the longer she hangs around the front "gallery" (the old-timey word for porch) of a childless, kindly older couple (Kay Wallace, Michael Mueller), the more she feels safe and at home.

Not much happens in either of these short pieces. Good thing, too, because the cast of non-pro actors has a hard enough time getting across the minor actions and emotions of these little homespun dramas without being called upon for anything taxing. Young Sanchez, a pretty girl, rushes her lines and darts her eyes at the audience. Wallace and Mueller fall into the bad habits community theater actors tend to have about over-gesturing and not listening to each other well enough to believably react.

One of the best ways to learn about good acting is to watch good actors and see how subtle their choices are in gestures and reactions, even in the biggest moments onstage. The Methodist bunch could use a group field trip down the street to DTC at the Wyly Theatre. Dividing the Estate, directed by Joel Ferrell, is a master class in great, subtle acting. For all the participants in the big festival, that show should be the yardstick to use in measuring how best to act Foote.

From such wistful emotions are timeless tales of star-crossed teenage lovers made. And Tuck Everlasting is so full of wist, you'll be daubing your eyes before intermission.


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