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THEATER : Teaching Children Well : 'The Snow Maiden' and other tales by Debbie Devine and Jay McAdams are aimed at promoting educational values as they entertain.

December 17, 1995|Janice Arkatov | Janice Arkatov is a regular contributor to Calendar

When Debbie Devine and Jay McAdams tell you that their holiday tale "The Snow Maiden" is loosely based on the story of photographer Margaret Bourke-White, you can half-believe them.

"It's loosely based in some places, tightly based in others," says McAdams, who created the show with his wife, Devine, and their 15-member Glorious Repertory Players. The acclaimed piece (which is making its third annual sojourn at the Odyssey Theatre) was also inspired by a popular 19th century Russian folk tale--and by Devine's own 1993 miscarriage. "We were grieving," McAdams says, "and we needed to work our way through that. We called a storyteller friend and asked her to come up with stories about loss and rejuvenation."

"If you love somebody, their spirit will always be with you," Devine says softly. "[Realizing that is] how we healed."

The Russian fable centers on an infertile farmer and his wife, who create a snow-child to ease their loneliness. In Devine and McAdams' story, the fable is told to young Anna Petrovich, who witnesses murderous pogroms in her native Russia and later the Nazi occupation of France. Like the real Bourke-White, the character of Anna tries to conceal her Jewishness. Near the end of the play, however, Anna recalls the life-affirming story of the snow maiden, reclaims her faith and comes to the aid of the endangered child of her friend, Claire.

"Through her connection with Claire, a Resistance fighter in Paris," Devine explains, "Anna finds her courage and her identity and passes that on."

The eight-actor piece--directed by Devine and designed for audiences ages 8 and older--joins a collection of intergenerational fare that she and McAdams have created: "Cirque du L.A." (about a dyslexic girl who runs away to join the circus), "Opossum Tales" (about a grandfather and granddaughter--and an opossum family) and, for slightly older audiences, an adaptation of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein."

Since 1987, Devine's Glorious Repertory (named for her mother, Gloria, who financed the director's first show in 1982) has been the Odyssey's residential children's and family theater company.

It's not a responsibility that anyone takes lightly.

"As long as we've got people for 1 1/2 hours, we don't want to just entertain them," says McAdams, who has had a recurring role in the NBC soap "Days of Our Lives" and is a cast member in "Snow Maiden." "I think we have a right to be missionaries when we're playing for children. What you see as a child profoundly affects your life. Our plays are socially based, virtue based, about morality, humanity, nurturing and celebrating life. But we have to be as subtle as possible, because people hate messages."

It was children's theater that brought Devine and McAdams together eight years ago, when she cast him in a production of Glorious Repertory's "The Island" (about a group of society's misfits who take refuge on a tropical island). At the time, Devine was married, so the actor kept a discreet distance.

"But two years later, when her marriage broke up, I was waiting in the wings--literally," says McAdams, whose next play with Devine (and collaborator Jose Cruz Gonzales), "The Music of Magdalena Bay," will premiere next year.

Married since 1991, McAdams and Devine combine writing, acting and directing with teaching in many venues, including working together in the L.A. Unified School District's Star Program teaching drama after school, private classes, seminars and workshops, among them one for educators: "Teaching as a Performing Art."

Born in Oklahoma City, McAdams, 31, entered Rose State College there as a broadcasting major. "I was embarrassed to say I wanted to be an actor--it was considered a sissified thing," he says. After McAdams interned at the local ABC affiliate, his major required that he take some theater classes, which, he says, "gave me the boost to do what I really wanted."

Soon after, he did a regional audition for the Pasadena- and New York-based American Academy of Dramatic Arts and was accepted; one week later, he packed up all his belongings and headed for California. Last year, McAdams returned to his alma mater--this time as a teacher.

A native of Los Angeles and history graduate of UCLA, Devine, 44, has long toiled as an actress ("Letters Home," at CalArts in 1985) and director ("Working Without Annette," at the Odyssey, in 1990) but has found her strongest identity in working with children.

"It started with a children's show I saw at the Burbage in 1975," she recalls. "I remember watching the audience, the kids being so captivated, and thinking, 'This is my calling, this is what I want to do.' "

She spent the next five years as artistic director of the Burbage's Theatre for Children, and in 1989 she produced a series of children's programs for cable TV, "Acting Up With Debbie Devine." She also has taught at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and CalArts and now heads up the drama program at USC's Colburn School of Performing Arts.

Yet Devine is probably most affected by her long-term association with Poseidon High School in West Los Angeles, a special education facility for at-risk and delinquent teenagers.

"I'm constantly amazed by the power of theater," says the director, who co-created the Theatre for Youth Alliance a few years ago to foster quality art locally. "I know that [art] is important; I know it makes a difference in the world. I don't have any kids myself, but I have a great identification with this city--the children of our community. After 16 years working with gang youths, I've never been with a kid that hasn't in some way been affected by an art form. And I've realized, after almost a half-century, is that's what it's all about: love and people."

*

"THE SNOW MAIDEN," Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. Dates: Today, 2 and 7 p.m.; Monday-Friday, 8 p.m.;

Saturday, 2, 8 and 10 p.m. Closes Saturday. Prices $12.50. Phone: (310) 477-2055.

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