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THEATER REVIEWS : Rose-Colored Memories Blend in a Sweet 'Dandelion Wine' : A 12-year-old boy does some growing up during a magical time in charming small-town America in this Alternative Repertory Theatre effort.

March 23, 1994|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — Most people are content to reminisce now and then about their childhood. Most writers have an uncontrollable urge to write about theirs. Science-fiction maven Ray Bradbury is no exception.

But, like the one bygone day Emily in "Our Town" chooses to revisit, Bradbury picks a summer day in 1928, a magical time when his alter ego, 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding, was suddenly goosed into growing up.

There are other similarities with Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." Bradbury's Greentown, Ill., is that long-ago, all-but-forgotten thing: innocent, naive and utterly charming small-town America.

In Bradbury's "Dandelion Wine," at Alternative Repertory Theatre, the town is the center of Douglas' universe. He is, as he is perfectly frank in admitting, "a wizard of wizards." He can make the sun come up and the birds begin to warble. He can make the town folk stop dead in their tracks when he hollers "Red light, freeze, don't move!"

It's a world that director Joel T. Cotter and most of his cast understand, seen through a rose-colored glass, tinted in antique tones, and bubbling with the charm memory often gives to the past.

That understanding is also evident in David C. Palmer's evocative lighting design and Gary Christensen's sound design. And Cotter's staging on ART's small playing area is full of the spirit of Bradbury's memory, and full of enough dramatic tricks to entrance even the impatient Douglas Spaulding.

Doug (Glenn Meek), his kid brother Tom (David Neilsen) and his best friend John Huff (Lindsay Irvine) are brightest in Bradbury's memory, and the action flows like a kaleidoscopic dream around them.

The images move into and out of their simple perception, like the machines at Lena Aufman's (Carole Hennessy) penny arcade, like the spinster Misses Fern and Roberta (Stefanie Williamson, Laurie Messerly) honking through town in their roadster, like the ill-fated trolley driven by Mr. Triddens (Tom Orr).

The play is almost like a piece of music being conducted by a mysterious stranger named Forrester (Jonathan M. Motil). He knows what's going to happen and smiles sweetly when the Greentown folks seem to recognize him but can't quite place where from.

*

Forrester knows about Doug's wizardry and his puppy love for the librarian Ann Barclay (Kathryn Byrd). And he knows about Doug's Grandpa's cellar, where the dated bottles of dandelion wine are aging.

Motil is a warm and nicely distracted, well-detailed Forrester, often in awe of his memories of his boyhood, and kind enough not to give his identity away to Doug too soon.

The performance, though, that carries the production is Meek's as Doug, fresh, full of bursting enthusiasm and wonder at the world's doing his bidding. Meek makes you believe in Doug every moment, with all your heart. It is a virtuoso performance.

Neilsen is expert at appearing 9 years old as Doug's brother. As John, who deserts Doug and causes the first crack in Doug's childhood armor, Irvine gives a fine portrayal of what every man remembers as the best friend of his boyhood.

The whole cast is adept at re-creating and peopling Bradbury's microcosm of the past, particularly Byrd's librarian, as warm and ingratiating as to make Doug's adoration believable.

The exception is Steve Willis, who plays Doug's Grandpa and doubles as the ancient Col. Freeleigh, who fascinates Doug with tales of his Civil War days and his adventures with Pawnee Bill. Willis obviously likes his roles, because he acts a great deal doing them, declaiming his lines with stentorian assurance, but never taking the time to build a characterization for either.

* "Dandelion Wine," Alternative Repertory Theatre, 1636 S. Grand Ave., Santa Ana. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends April 9. $16. (714) 836-7929. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes. Glenn Meek Douglas: Spaulding

Jonathan M. Motil: William Forrester

David Neilsen: Tom Spaulding

Lindsay Irvine: John Huff

Kathryn Byrd: Ann Barclay

Steve Willis: Grandpa/Col. Freeleigh

An Alternative Repertory Theatre production of Ray Bradbury's memory play, produced by Kathleen A. Bryson. Directed by Joel T. Cotter. Lighting design: David C. Palmer. Sound design/stage manager: Gary Christensen.

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