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Apple Tree Theatre

Robert Fulghum’s best-sellers offer a simple recipe for a good life, following the precepts we all learned in kindergarten: share, play fair, clean up your own mess, never take things that don’t belong to you. His four books, warm collections of anecdotes, observations, and homilies, instruct us to be aware of the wonder of the world, to believe that anything is possible, and to take a nap each day.

I’m no fiend. I agree with him. To “reflect light into the dark places of the world” is a great and worthy mission. But while watching All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten!, Ernest Zulia’s adaptation of Fulghum’s books at the Apple Tree Theatre, I began to wonder whether those dark places were ever going to be acknowledged. In fact, I began to long for some of those dark places. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, this is one of the sweetest, most precious, innocuous bits of fluff I’ve seen on a stage.

The world described here (through a series of skits, monologues, and two pleasant songs by David Caldwell, performed by the ensemble of five) seems to be an exclusively white, middle-class enclave where families stick together (even though a young father might occasionally wish to bolt), old couples melt youthfully into each other’s arms on the dance floor, and everyone is amused by observations about that stuff that remains in the sink drain after the dishes are done. Sweetly solemn deaf children and wise old Auschwitz survivors appear from time to time to remind us to count our blessings. The darkest place explored is the one where cancer dwells. We are instructed to appreciate the difference between “a lump in your oatmeal, a lump in your throat, and a lump in your breast.”

In fairness, Fulghum is so damn adorable that his minisermons don’t seem self-righteous; and in most cases, you can’t argue with his logic. Listening to Beethoven is a good cure for the ordinary blues. But someone with real problems might view Fulghum’s shallow philosophies with a cynical eye. It’s one thing to read them–you can always put the book down. But with the sugar-coating his ideas suffer in this production, they evoke hostility on a scale with Barney.

As directed by Zulia, the ensemble (William Brown, Gene Janson, Suzanne Petri and Ed Sala, accompanied by Eric Lane Barnes on the piano) is a warm and capable group: nurturing, loving, sensitive, open, empathic in the extreme, and relentlessly perky. For two solid hours. No kidding, these are good actors. Anyone who can dramatize a heartwarming tale about a competent woman who goes to pieces when she encounters a spider (the twist is that the spider is more afraid of the woman) without smirking has concentration and dedication to spare. Sala has the good fortune to snare one of the best monologues, about a disastrous wedding in which the bride commits a rather serious faux pas midway down the aisle, and he tells it with a relish that is easier to accept than the sentimentality that dominates the rest of the show. Particularly hard to swallow, on the other hand, is a tribute to John Pierpont, who failed at a number of careers but left us “Jingle Bells,” which the ensemble urges the audience to sing too.

I haven’t experienced anything like it since Girl Scouts. This production may have much to offer those who long to recapture that time when kindergarten and scouts really did light the way with their simple truths. But if the prospect of being lectured to on the admirable tenacity of the itsy bitsy spider sets your teeth on edge, you probably have a drop of cynicism in your blood. And that’s one drop too many for this production.