Dallas — Never mind that author E.B. White’s farm was way Up East in the state of Maine: the Dallas Children’s Theater’s gently beguiling production of White’s much-loved Charlotte’s Web is Pure Prairie—taking its inspiration from our dreams of a mid-century American heartland of cornfields, windmills, and flocks of birds soaring across a wide sky. There’s plenty of peace and quiet (you can hear birds chirp in the distance), not a Wii or an Xbox in sight—and the story’s biggest special effect is a spider writing words on her web.
But there’s no question that this simple tale (last produced by DCT in 2005) once again makes itself heard—and should connect with audiences young and old at the Rosewood Center for Family Arts. In DCT veteran director (A Wrinkle in Time, Tuck Everlasting) Artie Olaisen’s thoughtful vision, executed beautifully by scenic and video designer Jeff Franks, silhouettes of farm country flank the stage and draw us in toward the classic barn and barnyard where most of Charlotte’s story takes place. And smack dab at the center of it all is a spider’s web, spanning the high window of the barn’s loft.
Unless your library card expired long ago, you probably know that Charlotte’s Web is the story of piglet Wilbur (Johnny Lee), the runt of the litter, and the two women who love him: farm girl Fern (Cate Stuart at the performance reviewed; she alternates the role with Ingrid Fease), who can’t bear to see the extra piglet killed; and a barn spider named Charlotte A. Cavatica (Monique Abry), who befriends Wilbur and decides to find some way to keep him off the farmer’s dinner table. Charlotte makes Wilbur a star by weaving admiring words into her web: “Some Pig”… “Terrific”… “Radiant.” Who’d dare turn him into a ham sandwich after that? As Charlotte knows, celebrity will get all the humans excited, and make Wilbur a pig they want to keep around.
The story’s great gift is its capacity to reach audiences on many levels. To the youngest crowd, CW plays like a straight-up tale about friendship and helping—a “can this pig be saved?” story. Wised-up preteens and high schoolers hear the notes of love and loss; for them, it’s an early meditation on life, death, and maybe even the food on their plates. For adults, it’s all that plus a bittersweet look at the fleeting nature of life—and how important it is to feel you’ve done something with that life. All these different audiences can be amused and moved on their own terms, and leave with something worth having.
Stuart is a fresh-faced and loving Fern, caught at that wonderful moment when “trying to rid the world of injustice” (her dad, joshing about Fern saving baby Wilbur from the ax) is everything—before the teenage distractions that come later. Lee (last seen in Lyric Stage’s The Human Comedy) makes a sweetly appealing Wilbur, slim and little-boyish, with his piglet-pink ears setting off an angelic smile. There’s no denying that Wilbur is cute enough to—well, let’s not go there.
In the end, though, this is definitely Charlotte’s story, and DCT’s production (using Joseph Robinette's adaptation) is graced by a lovely performance from Monique Abry, whose background in musical theater is evident. She gives Charlotte’s very particular voice—practical, wise and warm—a gravely musical tone, and her “web” sessions have a dancer’s elegance. And why shouldn’t Charlotte be the center of our attention? Wilbur may be “some pig”—but as farmer’s wife Mrs. Zuckerman (well-played by local favorite Deborah Brown) points out, maybe it’s that spelling, writing spider they should all be shouting about.
Charlotte isn’t sure exactly why she’s so determined to save Wilbur—she thinks it may be her way of “lifting up” a life that’s otherwise defined by catching flies in a web. But she is a bold and clever friend indeed, and Wilbur, not the philosophical type, is simply grateful that she’s in his life.
Luke Saroni is nicely annoying as Fern’s goofy little brother Avery; Randy Pearlman makes his DCT debut playing an array of characters, notably a blowhard supersized pig in competition with Wilbur for the fair’s blue ribbon. Andy Baldwin is appropriately slithery as Templeton the rat, who helps Wilbur when there’s something tasty in it for him, no matter how stale or smelly. His Ratso Rizzo look is just “eeewy” enough to make the little ones squirm—but not run. And M. Denise Lee is blunt and funny as the old Sheep, who isn’t shy about letting Wilbur know just why that farmer is fattening him up.
A barnyard of animals fills out the cast, and watching them strut and fluff in Lyle Huchton’s inventive costumes is a highlight of the show. The Goose (Steph Garrett) is a total hoot (or do we mean honk?), with her fluty voice and loosey-goosey walk, making every feather shimmy as she flaps her wings. It’s worth a few minutes at the end to get a close-up view of the costumes out in the lobby; the use of texture, color and ribbon appliqué is marvelous.
Charlotte’s Web is the first part of a double feature: White’s other children’s classic Stuart Little is the DCT’s current national touring production, and comes to the Rosewood Center in June.
» Here's a video preview of the production: