"Step on a crack, break your step mother's back." In Suzan Zeder's drama, "Step on a Crack," presented by the California State University, Northridge Theatre for Young Audiences, a confused and resentful 10-year-old girl delivers the familiar children's ditty with angry emphasis.
Since her mother's death six years before, Ellie (Risa Munitz) and her father, Max (Peter Reeves), have been more like pals than parent and child. Her world is shaken when Max remarries.
Lucille (Paige Ellsworth), Ellie's new stepmother, is everything that Ellie feels she herself can never be: neat, pretty and competent. Unable to deal with her insecurity, Ellie compounds her problems through bad behavior, adding to her conviction that she's unlovable and unloved.
Zeder's textbook psychological study takes us through the conflicting emotions experienced by everyone involved: Lucille's frustration and sadness when her attempts to get close to Ellie fail; Max's growing anger and lack of understanding when his daughter interferes with his new happiness, and Ellie's emotional roller-coaster ride going out of control.
Showing children that their feelings of ambivalence and guilt are normal, and doing it without glib trivialization, is a worthy ambition. But with a full measure of plot devices--evil-stepmother fantasies, imaginary friends and an internal voice embodied by a separate actor--there must be clarity, not clutter. And a cast capable of more than one dimension is needed to put it all across or, as happens here, a serious subject threatens to become a tedious tract.
Adam Lindsey's set design is unremitting gloom and sharp angles, and Ellie's room, strewn with books, toys and clothes, seems to reflect her jumbled thoughts.
But the energetically pouting Munitz doesn't show the vulnerability beneath a disturbed child's antisocial actions. A sense of petty injury rather than real pain is the result when Ellie's inner Voice (Vance Lawson) undermines any softening toward her stepmother.
Reeves is likable, but too boyish to convince as Ellie's indulgent and obtuse father. When he finally punishes Ellie for her rudeness, his explanation, "I just hate it when she yells," is a whine, not bewildered frustration.
Ellsworth is pleasant, almost stolid, which works well for her as Lucille, less well during her turns as Ellie's fantasy fiend. Her under-whelming reaction--no hugs or kisses--to Ellie's crisis-induced acceptance of her prevents a too-pat ending.
Credit goes to director Christine Parrent Caton and all involved for taking a chance on a full-length play that delivers an important message for children who are part of today's divorce and remarriage statistics. The best intentions, however, don't always guarantee the best results.
Performances continue through April 28 at 18111 Nordhoff St., Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., (818) 885-3093.