(Glenn Cook photo)
By CJ Williams
‘Charlotte’s Web’ by E.B. White in adaptation by Joseph Robinette; Scene Design by Jim Byrne; Directed byEmily Ranii; Stage Management by Katie Graves; Choreographed by T. Lawrence-Simon; Costume Design by Zoe Sundra; Lighting Design by Frank Meissner Jr; J Sound Design by Josh Northcutt, playing at Wheelock Family Theater, 80 Riverway, Boston, MA 02215 through May 14th
‘Charlotte’s Web’, now playing at Wheelock Family Theater, is a delight up and down. But just because it’s delightful, doesn’t mean it doesn’t run deep. In fact, anyone who knows E.B. White’s charming classic knows the themes dance from levity to despair, new life to the ever-threatening shadow of death, humor to poignancy. All the same, if you’ve seen a story, you’ve seen it, right?
The play opens on the quiet scene of a farm, where the narrator introduces the Arable family, two children, mother, father…and just to left stage, the barn, where a brand new batch of piglets has just been born. As the family goes about its morning routine, the narrator quietly remarks that the last piglet is a runt. Wilbur, as yet unnamed (a wonderfully anthropomorphic Michael Hisamoto), scrambles at the gate weakly, while the hired hand and Mr. Arable begin a spine-chilling preparation to put the little weakling out of his misery. With a hatchet.
Wilbur is saved by the earnest, desperate, last minute intervention of the younger of the children, Fern, who throws herself between the hatchet and the piglet.
But while Mr. Arable gives in for the moment, it’s soon clear that Wilbur’s fate has only been delayed. He is, after all, a pig. Pigs are born for slaughter. This spine-chilling undercurrent of White’s story has been well-balanced by the cast – easily setting and keeping the pace with the humor so well inserted by Robinette’s adaptation (especially the geese, the sheep, and other barnyard animals, played up but never overplayed). But the chilling specter of death still hovers, with isolation at its core.
Then, we have Charlotte. The spider. And this is where, if you thought you knew the dance, you get the thrill of this new staging. Because the production team has matched White’s range of theme with new breadth and innovation in their presentation: Where White runs the gamut from tragedy to side-splitting bouts of comic relief, the Wheelock team has created a show that explores a wider spectrum – from traditional stagecraft to choreographic experimentalism. And you get to experience the joy of those elements, especially in Caroline Lawton’s wonderful turn as Charlotte – as she enters from the air.
Using silks, Lawton is an aerial acrobat throughout the show. Her web is formed of draped silks, secured to the theater ceiling. When she promises – as she does – to save Wilbur from premature death, she flips and twirls, up and down, “writing” a message to the world about Wilbur’s quality in her web. At the same time, she receives the unswerving attention of both kids and adults in the dark theater – (and as I saw this at matinee of hundreds of grade-schoolers, you can believe that’s no easy feat). More than that, however, Lawton’s use of aerial acrobatics give her the ability both physically and visually to be embody her role, and be that spider.
As the story progresses, of course, Charlotte’s inexplicable messages are taken as miraculous (and perhaps – if we count friendship as a miracle, they are), and Wilbur is gussied up and off to the county fair, where “if he wins, he lives”.
Tensions rise. Charlotte, it happens, has come along, and brought with her an egg sack – and her last reserve of strength to write a final message. “Humble.”
And while that word sums up, perhaps, what is at the core of one of ‘Charlotte’s’ timeless themes – friendship – it doesn’t match the diversity and delightful daring of Wheelock’s production in the least. This is an audacious and fun jaunt through a standby classic, beautifully performed by a diverse cast; and the story shines more brightly for the attention and innovation. For more info, go to: https://wheelockfamilytheatre.org/current-season/feature-performance/