Here's some free advice for theatergoers that's actually worth more than the price: If you want to enjoy an earnest play for children unsabotaged, don't sit next to a restive 5-year-old who has chosen to speak aloud the thoughts you barely knew you were thinking, so far had they been shoved to the bottom of your brainpan in order to evaluate the production sans adult cynicism. The tiny towheaded smart guy couldn't have been school-age for more than a year, but as my next-seat neighbor during Dallas Children's Theater's production of The Boxcar Children, he provided fairly sophisticated running commentary to this 1920s period piece about four orphaned siblings who, during The Great Depression, escape authorities threatening to split them up and live instead as a self-sustaining family in an abandoned, tree-shrouded box car.
This pint-sized pundit alternated comments with insistent questions, and this made him seem all the more surreptitious in his dramaturgical anarchy. He had a very innocent way of seeming prematurely jaded. When oldest brother Henry (Derik Webb) realized he has just revealed their secret abode to a concerned small-town doctor (Richard Montgomery), he knows outspoken eldest sister Jessie (Kate Blackstone) won't be pleased. "She's gonna kill me!" he gulps, stretching his face sheepishly. "Henry!" cries Jessie's voice offstage, as the scene ends and the lights go out. "I'm gonna kill you!" "Pow!" whispered the kid next to me, an impressive imitation of a pistol-shot sound effect from one so cherub-faced. When actors abruptly announce that the quartet of homeless tykes had watched their parents drown in a boating accident, the boy bugged his mother, "Did they die on the Titanic? I'll bet they died on the Titanic!" Most memorably of all, however, came the question that his mother couldn't answer, that none of us could satisfy, really. When rich grandfather Mr. Alden (Steve Powell) is lowered, cogs and wheels of the deus ex machina noisily ungreased, to rescue the orphans from their forest privation, Jessie and Henry deliver indignant lines about the home they've created, how they cook their own food and sew their own clothes and "stick together like glue" and have no interest in living with a wealthy relative in Chicago. Their prideful announcements were punctured with a query repeated by the squirming blond boy--"Why do they wanna live in a box?"--until his mother told him for the umpteenth time to shut his trap. Tears were pouring down my face, all right, but I'm not sure playwright Barbara Field envisioned this kid as a factor in my reaction to the onstage crises.
As a matter of fact, I wanna know too: Why do these scrappy jazz-era moppets want to live in a box? So that the parents who buy their children tickets to this Dallas Children's Theater show can be satisfied with lessons of personal responsibility and family loyalty and resourcefulness during adversity. Notice I said the parents, not their progeny. Although I've pledged to go to a pauper's grave with no harvest sprung from these well-tilled loins, this election year has really slammed it home to me how politicians cruelly prey on the fears of parents that their children can be corrupted by a corrupt world. Part of the investment of birthing and raising a child is the desperate hope that the world can be--should be--a better place than it is now. And under the adept if at times soft-boiled direction of Nancy Shaeffer, The Boxcar Children does offer a briskly nutritious fantasy in which parents, even after their untimely deaths, can love their kids enough to keep them together and (initially, at least) self-sufficient under America's worst economic crisis of the 20th century. This show, like too much children's theater, aims at assuaging the terrors of parents instead of quickening the imagination of their brood.
Author Barbara Field, adapting a story by Gertrude Chandler Warner, includes references to Mark Twain, William Shakespeare, and Henry Fielding, and Warner's glossary of '20s words and phrases such as "moxie, "sawbones" (for surgeon), "Hooverville" (an impromptu, itinerant family of the homeless), and "That's swell!" The actors deliver all this with professional credulity--and yes, it is nice to escape irony, at least for a while. Everyone diligently does what he and she have been told to do, leading to a production consistent--for good and ill--in dramatic tone. Unfortunately, perhaps with colloquial historical caricatures in mind, director Schaeffer has piloted some of her actors into some very syrupy marshlands of characterization, particularly Jennifer Emerson as the widowed mother of the unmarried doctor who discovers the orphans' hidden dwelling. Watching her hand flutter to her bosom and listening to her wise, gently chiding chuckles, I started off reminded of Aunt Bea on The Andy Griffith Show. Then I realized she recalled Catherine O'Hara playing Aunt Bea on that SCTV sketch where John Candy as Otis the town drunk gets Opie wasted. The parody seemed built-in to Emerson's performance, and worse, entirely unconscious.
The literary prescription of heavy doses of saccharine to maintain vigorous childhood health has always had its second opinions, from Lewis Carroll to Dr. Seuss to Roald Dahl to Charles M. Schulz to Louis Sachar, and on and on. Your average intelligent, aware brat will likely have a sense of humor closer to Ionesco than Disney, I contend. They have a shark's smell for locating the absurdity in conventions so small they are burdensome for us tired adults to think about. The archaic and the canonical references in The Boxcar Children were lost to most of the youthful audience members, but what should we expect? Here, they are mere mechanical footnote tributes to conventional masters rather than an attempt to use those masters' playfulness to generate a little original inspiration. And they crowd and jostle into this play's most fertile basic scenario, a recognizable field of fantasy for many of us when we were kids: that of tasting the power of adult independence before we came of legal age. In truth, this dream had more to do with staying up late and watching whatever movie or TV show we wanted to than quoting The Tempest at an appropriate moment.
Some parents of bored audience members, one suspects, fretted that new-millennial pop culture had already sunk its fangs into their kids' tender throats. Yet I think it's educational to note what scene brought the loudest, most delighted laughs from the children. Perusing a garbage dump, the youngest orphan, Violet (Merrill Searcy), is thrilled to find a discarded toy. There's one problem. Her adorable nightgowned baby doll is headless. She clings to it, nonetheless, with determined affection. Let's list the important values in this tiny but passionate discovery: acceptance of limitations, the redemptive desire to love and be loved, identifying beauty where others see trash. The children were gleeful, because all that was wrapped in a slightly sick sight gag. Left alone to wander through this prefab playground version of childhood for sentimental adults, they knew exactly how to respond to an atypically honest expression of feeling.
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