Lifeline Theatre

Special among the legends of any culture is the hero journey–a quest for a magical prize, during which the seekers must meet challenges that expose their strengths and weaknesses and teach them where to place their faith. Beowulf, Galahad, Gilgamesh, Parsifal, and Luke Skywalker all follow that path. But children seldom make such journeys, though the best of modern make-believe has tried to remedy that: there’s Wendy in Peter Pan, Alice in Through the Looking-Glass, Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. The three kids in Madeleine L’Engle’s award-winning novel A Wrinkle in Time also take a fantastic hero journey that fully tests their worth.

On a proverbial “dark and stormy night” Meg and Charles Wallace meet three enchanted ladies in a haunted house. Mrs. Whatsit is a literal former star who wears a rainbow-colored cape and can transform herself into a huge white flying creature. Mrs. Who, a time traveler, loves to offer pithy aphorisms in foreign languages. Mrs. Which, as her name implies, knows all the right spells. Most important, the threesome have learned the art of “tessering,” gliding through the title’s fifth dimension to visit other worlds.

Meg and Charles are joined by Calvin, a high school junior who’s a “popular big shot.” They need his confidence. Meg is a self-declared oddball; nagged at and picked on, she’s always angry and fearful. Five-year-old Charles pretends to be a moron to conceal a fearsome intelligence and telepathic powers. He and Meg want to find their father, a government physicist who mysteriously disappeared when he learned how to penetrate the “tesseract” time warp.

After giving them true advice, which taps their secret skills, the stellar dames leave the children to take their part in the age-old battle of enlightenment against darkness. That struggle peaks on the planet where Meg and Charles’s dad is kept prisoner. Run by a huge brain–the “Central Central Intelligence”–this “Dark Place” is a totalitarian realm, a mathematical bureaucracy where everyone is ground down by a spurious equality. All homes look alike, all differences have been erased; unhappiness is unknown, but so is joy.

Rebelling against this stifling uniformity, the children cherish differences they once loathed. They free the father–by thinking lovely thoughts, just as Wendy learned to fly. But Charles’s mind is taken over by the planet’s control freaks. It’s up to frightened Meg to use her faults–her anger and impatience–as well as the universal power of love to save her brother. A joyous, if somewhat cloying, reunion crowns her courage.

Lifeline Theatre member James Sie adapted L’Engle’s story–a spirited retelling that captures the heart of her magic. The production’s special effects, such as the children flailing through space as glitter falls from above and footlights isolate them from below, may not be Spielberg-size, but there are many lovely moments in which less becomes more. Russ Borski’s swift-moving set pieces create a host of playing areas, Melanie Parks’s fantasy costumes carry a comic-strip exuberance, and Peter Gottlieb’s lighting uses a circular grating buried center stage to create some telling images, including a giant illuminated globe.

If Sie’s script has any fault, it’s a dogged fidelity to the sometimes simplistic original: you never forget this is an uplifting children’s tale driven by familiar formulas. There are holes in the tale too: we never discover why the children’s mother is disturbed to hear of the “tesseract.” In the second act the narrative machinery begins to show through, and we travel way ahead of the action. Happily, Meryl Friedman’s staging has won us over by then; we want to believe.

I usually cringe when adults play children, but the sharply defined Lifeline trio performs with dead-on earnestness and contagious conviction. Sandy Snyder gives Meg a klutzy energy that’s all the more poignant for its gawky indecisiveness. Lenny Grossman proved his affinity for child parts when he portrayed a very real five-year-old in Blueprint Theatre Group’s Found a Peanut; his warmhearted Calvin is a plucky scrapper out of a Horatio Alger novel. As Charles, Steve Totland does his best work yet; hilariously humorless, his kid resembles Calvin, the subversive tyke in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip.

As the children’s spiritual advisers, Candace Ferger, Alison Halstead, and Adrienne Solid strain to fit these outsized roles–the parts cry out for Disney animation. Still, L’Engle’s weird sisters can count on a lot of suspended disbelief from Lifeline’s audiences.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.