Dallas — Wistfulness is a particularly difficult emotion to stage; kudos, then, to Dallas Children’s Theater for pulling it off in their sensory-friendly production of Tuck Everlasting. Based on the classic children’s novel by Natalie Babbitt, the story follows Winnie Foster, a lonely little girl who stumbles into a family hiding an otherworldly secret. Although the script is perhaps too compressed to completely do justice to the novel, DCT’s production manages to capture both the sweetness and the melancholy infused in the story in a beautifully-staged production geared towards older children.
In the miserably hot first week in August, Winnie Foster (Katy Tye), the 10-year old daughter of a well-to-do family in a small town called Treegap, is so bored and lonely that she spends most of her days talking to toads through the fence. Determined to get away from her stifling life and find some way to make a difference in the world, she runs away into the forest owned by her family since time in memoriam. It’s there she spies a boy drinking water from a small spring under a tree, who panics when she reveals herself. This is Jesse Tuck (David Allen Norton), and when he’s joined by his mother Mae (Wendy Welch) and brother Miles (Ryan Michael Friedman), they spirit Winnie away to their home deep in the back woods to try and protect their secret: the Tucks, having all drunk from the spring in passing years ago, can’t age or die. As patriarch Angus Tuck (Sonny Franks) tells Winnie, they’ve been removed from the cycle of life, whether that may be a blessing or a curse, but they fear the larger implications of letting anyone else know the power of the spring. Winnie quickly comes to care for the Tucks and to enjoy their lifestyle, but a stranger in a yellow suit (Paul T. Taylor) looking for the family threatens all they hold dear. Winnie must decide not only what she’s willing to do to protect the Tucks, but whether she wants to join them forever.
It’s hard to ground a fairy tale, but between Babbitt’s lyrical prose (large swaths of which are, blessedly, retained by this adaptation), longtime DCT staff member Artie Olaisen’s direction, and the production’s solid cast, DCT does a creditable job. Tye’s Winnie could benefit from having her age more concretely spelled out (although ten years old in the book, her age is not given in the play), as leaving it ambiguous changes the character’s dynamic with both the Tuck brothers rather drastically. That being said, Tye manages to keep the character winningly innocent and naïve without ever becoming cloying. It’s a shame, then, that she isn’t given more time to develop her relationship with the Tucks. Despite a few nice scenes—one with Franks’ Angus, the Tuck patriarch, who tried to explain the importance of keeping the spring a secret, and one with Friedman’s Miles as he laments the time he lost with his children, whose mother took them and left as Miles failed to age naturally—the play’s momentum propels Winnie into risking herself to save the Tucks without quite earning the emotional stakes. Still, the play’s emotional ending was beautifully played by Franks and Welch, and several other players—notably Taylor’s sly, malevolent Stranger in the Yellow Suit and veteran Douglass Burks’ cantankerous constable—acquit themselves well. Whether the play’s philosophical and ethical questions resonate with the audience is hard to say; for teens, probably, but some of the nuances of the action may be lost on younger viewers.
From a design standpoint, the production is one of the more sophisticated I’ve seen from DCT, especially with regard to the lighting design from Jason Lynch and the scenic and video design by Josh Smith. Rings of colored light pool on the stage between huge tree trunks, suggesting the rings of a tree and slyly reinforcing the motifs of time and its passage conveyed by the clock projected on the back wall of the stage. The clock serves a secondary purpose, as video images are superimposed on it—video of a sprint through the forest, blooming flowers, etc. This production also makes good use of DCT’s ample fly space, with door and window frames being raised and lowered to define new locations. There were, unfortunately, a few notable issues with the sound; actors were extremely difficult to hear when performing in the rear of the stage, and as a number of key scenes in the Tuck home took place there, it became increasingly problematic as the play went on.
DCT should be commended for their efforts at inclusivity with this piece. Not only were the house lights kept on for sensitive patrons and to facilitate safe exits and re-entrances, several onstage effects involving lighting and smoke were adjusted to lessen any possible negative effects on audience members. Staff designated as “helpers” for audience members exiting and entering were visually identified with badges and white shirts. Additionally, the performance was shown on a closed-circuit television in the lobby for patrons who needed to leave the theater, and a quiet room was provided for any patrons in need of reduced stimulation. One hopes that more theaters will follow DCT’s lead in making such thoughtful accommodations for their non-neurotypical patrons.