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THEATER REVIEW 'DANDELION WINE' : Youthful Ferment : Staging of Ray Bradbury's tale brings together a boy and his adult self.

February 27, 1992|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It comes to all of us--that magical summer on the cusp of childhood, when the first shadows of adult limitations appeared on our omnipotent horizon.

In case you've forgotten yours, Ray Bradbury would be more than happy to offer you his--in play form, no less, as PCPA Theaterfest pops the cork on Bradbury's own stage adaptation of his novel "Dandelion Wine."

Reverence for the unfettered imagination and the unfiltered clarity of youth resounds like a bacchanalian Greek chorus throughout Bradbury's writings. But it may have reached its unabashedly giddy apex in "Dandelion Wine," a semi-autobiographical nostalgia piece about a boy's 12th summer in a small town in 1928.

Steeped in equal measures of golden sunshine and ominous shadows, at its best this play offers hauntingly poetic dialogue framed with striking technical effects.

It's all centered around Douglas Spaulding (Michael Scott Shipley), a self-styled "Wizard's Wizard" who believes he can summon the dawn, bend fireflies to his will and otherwise indulge in the playful pastimes befitting a young god.

In the midst of his idyllic community arrives Bill Forrester (Frederic Barbour), who seems to know all the townsfolk even though no one can remember him.

Clearly a man on a quest, he tells Doug by way of explanation: "Sometimes people lose touch with themselves and then they have to find out why. I came back so I could go forward."

We quickly realize that Forrester is Doug's future self at age 38, returned to recapture the lucidity he lost along the way to maturity.

"I need to borrow the way you see," he tells Doug.

And Doug must learn from Bill to stop clinging desperately to the populace of his youthful memories, to make way for the man he will become.

Freezing in time is the play's central metaphor, symbolized in the dandelion wine Doug's grandfather (Richard Jones) bottles and labels for each day of the magical summer--"We're bottling up 1928," he exclaims with ironic satisfaction.

Barbour's Forrester hits all the right notes of sincerity and loss.

But we sometimes wish for more variation in Shipley's relentlessly high-amplitude Doug.

In the course of the play we meet a robust array of quirky characters.

Among the most superbly rendered are Leo (Charlie Bachmann), the gregarious inventor hard at work on his "happiness machine"; an automated Tarot Witch (Vanessa M. M. A. Nowitzky) who utters dire prophecies on the adult traumas that await Doug, and the old Colonel (Jack Greenman) who becomes the characters in his vivid memories--a living time machine.

What's missing is any sense of conflict between the characters.

The great unseen enemy is Time, but offstage opponents often make for static theatrical outings.

Director Jonathan Gillard Daly generally overcomes this limitation through vivid staging, including some particularly evocative use of sound effects in Jeff Mockus' sound design.

But by and large, the success of this production depends on how receptive you are to its theme.

"Dandelion Wine," Bradbury once wrote, "is nothing if it is not the boy-hid-in-the-man playing in the fields of the Lord on the green grass of other Augusts in the midst of starting to grow up, grow old, and sense darkness waiting under the trees to seed the blood."

At its best, it makes an eloquent case for arrested development.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Dandelion Wine" will be performed through March 2 at the Allan Hancock College Marian Theatre in Santa Maria. Evening performances ($15 or $17) are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; matinees ($10 or $13) are at 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are available through all TicketMaster outlets. For reservations or information, call (800) 221-9469.

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