A little girl in a sunflower hat, armed only with a garden tool and "gumption," is the unlikely vanquisher of evil in "Bronwen, the Traw, and the Shape-Shifter," Bridget Hanley's one-woman play for children that has been extended through Sunday at Theatre West and will reopen there in May.
The original author of the piece might strike some as unlikely as well: "Bronwen," an eloquently rhythmic, poetic fantasy about a little heroine recruited by flying squirrels to battle the terrifying "All-Dark," was written by James Dickey, poet laureate and Oscar-winning screenwriter. The acclaimed 1972 film "Deliverance," based on Dickey's novel, is a good example of just how dark and disturbing his work can be.
The very child-friendly "Bronwen" is a companion piece to Hanley's touring solo work for adults, Dickey's unsettling "May Day Sermon," about a female preacher in conflict with the male-dominated Baptist church.
Stage and TV veteran Hanley and her collaborator on both works, Theatre West's executive director John Gallogly, "wanted to have the light and dark of James Dickey, the morning and the evening," Hanley said.
She remembered the author had written a book for his daughter Bronwen and asked him what he thought about bringing it to the stage. "He was thrilled," she said. "I'm just so sad that he wasn't able to see it come to fruition." (Dickey died in January 1997.)
Gentle humor and the wonder of nature that pervade Dickey's fantasy provide a shining contrast to the soul-stealing villain of the piece, a "monstrous, one-footed terror" that Bronwen must defeat. Hanley, playing all the roles, gives full value to Dickey's rich language and rhythms.
"The imagery is more easily accessible than in 'May Day Sermon,' " she said, "but at the same time, it still stirred that same sense of beauty and wonder in me. It has even changed the way I take my morning walks. I never will see the outdoors again in the same way, whether it's a spider web with dew on it, or what Dickey calls, 'the flood sigh of grass in the spring.' "
Hanley, who has two daughters in their 20s, was also attracted by the fact that it is a little girl who must call on her own courage and strength to be the heroic champion of good against epic evil.
"That was so exciting to me to foster and present, especially in these times," she said.
Above all, however, it is Dickey's language that Hanley hopes will not just entertain but inspire young audiences and "allow them to create their own imagery in their own heads."
To that end, Hanley's performance deliberately leaves much to the imagination, with just a few props, designer Lee Bauer's simple set and original music by Nicholas Pike that reflects the Celtic flavor of Dickey's piece.
"We've been challenged by how much do we show, how much do we tell? We felt we needed to delight them in a way that if they didn't know certain words that maybe an image would help plant that in their memory."
Hanley, who had never done a work for children, felt some trepidation, wondering how a young audience would respond to something so different. The reception the show has received, leading to an extension and a return engagement, has put her fears to rest.
"It has been so rewarding. Those little faces are so open. I feel proud to be presenting this piece to that openness." She said she thinks it "might make a difference somewhere" to offer children the world Dickey created--a world where a light knock on the window is "a knock like the tail of a kite," where darkness is compared to "a great open mouth" and a lone sail is "like a butterfly pinch on the water."
"When John first presented Dickey's poetry to me," Hanley said, "I felt gifted and challenged beyond compare at the same time. Now it's great excitement. I don't mean to sound corny, it's just that [Dickey] made such a difference in my life and was so welcoming to me in his. I really felt that he would be with us forever. Then I realized that he is with us forever. I feel honor bound and thrilled to spread his words."
* "Bronwen, the Traw, and the Shape-Shifter," Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West (between Hollywood Bowl and Universal Studios), Los Angeles, Sunday, 12:30 p.m. $8. Ages 7 and up. (213) 851-7977.
TV or Not TV?: The Museum of Television & Radio's monthly series for children ages 4 to 8 and their families, "Television Together," a guide to making TV viewing educational as well as entertaining, will continue with a "Making Music" theme on March 21. After viewing children's programs "Pingu," "Insectors: The Prince of Rock" and "The Boy, the Slum and the Pan's Lids," educators will encourage children to talk about what they watched and relate it to their own experiences. Work sheets and take-home activities are provided. Upcoming topics: "Sun, Moon and Stars" (April 18), "Things That Grow" (May 16) and "Friends and Foes" (June 20).
* "Television Together: Making Music," Museum of Television & Radio, 465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, March 21, 12:30-1:30 p.m. Free with museum admission of $6, adults; $4, students and seniors; and $3, children. (310) 786-1035.