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Orange County FAMILY | STAGE REVIEW

Haunting Questions of Immortality

April 23, 1998|CORINNE FLOCKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

These are strange and breathless days, the dog days, when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.

--From "Tuck Everlasting," by Natalie Babbitt

*

In a heartbeat, a life can change forever. Or, in the case of the Tucks, it can become forever.

That's what 10-year-old Winnie Foster discovers when she slips out of her yard and onto a secret so big that she has to alter her very soul to hold it.

Natalie Babbitt's 1975 children's book "Tuck Everlasting" stirs up questions of growth and immortality, and the strength to handle both with grace and wisdom. These are heady themes for a grade-schooler (the book is standard fare for many fifth-grade classes), but "Tuck" is not a ponderous tale. Rather, it is like the Tucks themselves, plain as salt yet quirky enough to beguile.

Mark Frattaroli's stage version is an almost word-for-word portrayal of the book, a blessing considering the richness of Babbitt's prose.

Under the direction of Joe Lauderdale, the Laguna Playhouse Youth Theater presents a haunting, inspiring production. Performances continue through Sunday at the Moulton Theater in Laguna Beach. (Because of its pacing and content, "Tuck" is best suited to children in third grade and up.)

The Tucks--father Angus, mother Mae and sons Miles, 22, and Jesse, 17--are simple folk whose lives were frozen by sipping water from a spring. For more than 80 years, they've been unaltered by age or injury, living here or there for a spell, then moving on when the neighbors start to take notice.

Depending on which Tuck you ask, they are either blessed or cursed. It's Angus who takes it the hardest. "You can't call it living, what we got," he explains to Winnie. "We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road."

*

The story opens on a choking August day in 1880 when Winnie, chafed by the relentless heat and her rigid family, sees Jesse drinking from a spring in the wood. The Tucks whisk her off to their isolated farmhouse to convince her to keep their confidence. She gives her word and, soon after, her heart to these bewitched strangers, risking her safety and her family's wrath to protect them.

Ultimately, she faces a greater challenge: deciding whether to agree to Jesse's plea to drink some of the water when she turns 17, so they can literally be forever friends. Winnie's decision, and the actions that lead up to it, speak volumes about a young person's ability to weigh and measure critical decisions.

Lauderdale's scenic design is sparse, only a dozen or so platforms of varying heights and a few simple pieces of furniture. The floor-to-ceiling backdrop is of loosely woven jute, illuminated by lighting designer Donna Ruzika with a palette ranging from blistering sunset orange to the tranquil blue-green of a pond. Marilyn McElroy's costumes are specific to the period, down to Winnie's high-button shoes and her grandmother's bustle and snood.

The mostly adult cast (Adrienne Tygenhof as Winnie and Grant Ginder as Jesse are the only cast members younger than 17) is very capable, especially Kelly Herman's and Terry Christopher's touching portrayals of Mae and Angus. In the book, their characters are tinged with sadness, even desperation (one passage describes how Angus attempted suicide when he discovered the water's effect), but Herman and Christopher give them a little more warmth and gentle humor.

As Miles, Scott Narver is melancholy nearly to the point of dreariness early on, but he warms greatly as his character bonds with Winnie. Ginder is endearing as the boyishly exuberant Jesse, and Marc Ravenhill is suitably oily as the threatening Stranger in the Yellow Suit.

Tygenhof does excellent work as lonely Winnie, the "natural, growing child" that Angus welcomes so eagerly into their midst and who finds her heart forever changed by the encounter.

BE THERE

"Tuck Everlasting," Moulton Theater, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Friday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 1 and 5 p.m. Ends Sunday. A free "Stage Talk" question-and-answer session with the cast follows the Friday and Saturday evening performances. (714) 497-2787. $9-$12; children younger than 4 not admitted. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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More From Babbitt

Want to investigate other works by Natalie Babbitt? Look for these titles:

"Bub: The Very Best Thing"

"The Devil's Other Storybook"

"Herbert Rowbarge"

"Knee-Knock Rise"

"Nellie: A Cat on Her Own"

"The Search for Delicious"

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