October 13, 2003
Bridge to Terabithia
The challenge of putting on a serious play for children is to entertain them without preaching to them. Children’s Theatre of Charlotte succeeds marvelously in their production of Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, recommended for ages 8 and up.|
Director Alan Poindexter’s subtle touch illuminates the glories and horrors of childhood in this tender tale of a friendship between two fifth graders, Jess and Leslie. Jess is a farm boy who loves to run and to draw. He doesn’t fit in with the crowd. Leslie is a newcomer to the area, and though the local kids assume she is poor due to her tomboyish clothing, she is really the daughter of a wealthy couple who is seeking solace and enlightenment through country living.
The tale is told in retrospect, and its tragic culmination is hinted through a series of emotional outbursts by Jess. But between the beginning and end is a sweet exploration of the trials of friendship, of being different, and of finding a path of happiness in a world where conformity is encouraged. There are also forays into the complexity of family relationships, and the magic and solace that make-believe kingdoms can provide.
Leslie, played by Meghan Lowther, is the perfect playmate for the repressed Jess, whose imagination lives on the written page. As Jess, Mark Sutton reveals vulnerability through his status as an outsider, wonder as Leslie brings him into her make-believe world of Terabithia, and anger, when he is left behind. While Lowther’s enthusiasm is convincing, her role is straightforward. Sutton’s character is far more nuanced, and he plays it beautifully.
Terabithia is a fantastic land full of danger and intrigue. It is a place where Jess and Leslie can escape the crowd and be the masters of their own universe. They become the king and queen of Terabithia, and as such they conquer foes, are beneficent to their subjects, and create rituals for important moments.
Pat Reynold’s set design brings great jungle stalks out of the ground, and fluttering butterflies from above. Gary Sivak’s sound design enhances Terabithia with barking dogs and howling wolves. Eric Winkenwerder’s lights bring Terabithia to life.
Poindexter’s direction elicits shades of gray out of black and white. He studies the fascinating dynamics of group behavior through the actions of the class bully, played by Claire Whitworth Helm. He brings forth family dynamics through the relationship between Jess and his sister Maybelle, played by Christy Cardemone. Jess and Leslie’s differences are softly highlighted to demonstrate how their needs and strengths perfectly compliment one another.
The musical score deepens the emotional depth of the play. It is directed by the multitalented Gina Stewart, who also plays a nurturing teacher, quietly determined to encourage the children to follow their own paths.
Like all good make-believe places, Terabithia provides a parallel experience to the joys and sorrows of real life, within the safety of fantasy. When Jess cries out "Leslie, you messed me up. You made me see things I never saw before!" we understand the depth of his despair. For once the door to new light is open, for better or for worse, it is impossible to close.
Lynn Trenning, October 13, 2003