Touchstone Theatre

Just 55 years ago next week, on December 29, 1935, a young French aviator in a single-engine plane took off on his way to Saigon. South and east he flew, past Tunis and Tripoli and Benghazi. Then, lost and searching for Cairo, he and his mechanic dipped beneath the clouds, dangerously low, and crashed in the Libyan desert, uninjured but miles from help and with nothing to keep them alive but a pint of coffee, half a pint of wine, a few grapes, and an orange.

The ordeal of the next five days forms the centerpiece of Wind, Sand and Stars, the great meditation on flight by the young aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupery. The pair endured heat, hallucinations, and a trek later measured at 124 miles before they were rescued by a Bedouin who walked across the sand to them “like a god over the waves.” But in Saint-Exupery’s telling, the adventure of survival is just part of the tale. Faced with death, he contemplated life and love, hopeless effort and the ineluctable taste of an orange in a thirsty man’s throat.

The most touching moment in this touching account comes when Saint-Exupery discovers in the sand the tracks of a desert fox. He follows the trail, and though he never actually sees the animal, he imagines it: licking dew from rocks, meeting a companion, plucking snails from a dry twig. “I’m done for,” he says at last at the fox’s den, “but somehow that doesn’t prevent me from taking an interest in your mood.”

A few years later, Saint-Exupery returned to the images of the fox, the desert, and the thirsty aviator in composing The Little Prince, the well-loved fable that, in this country at least, has overshadowed the rest of his oeuvre.

Not that that’s a bad thing. The Little Prince is the work of an uncompromisingly humane thinker brooding on what matters most. Its familiar plot is built of finely conceived, resonant components: a child’s tragic love for the most beautiful flower on a very small planet, the fox’s lessons on mutual dependence, and the aviator’s discovery that the world can only be illuminated by things we cannot see, things that are dearer to us because they may not even exist.

It’s a wonderful book, but like a handful of other wonderful books, it falls uncomfortably between generations: a children’s book that says nothing that children don’t already know, an adult book whose wisdom gets lost in whimsy. Why can’t it be more dialectical, show its ideas in conflict more? Why can’t it be a bit more Candide and a little less Pogo?

Actually, it can. All you have to do is move the story from the printed page to the stage–at least in a production as intelligent, deep, and emotionally rich as the one currently on view at Touchstone Theatre.

David Zucker’s adaptation is devotedly faithful to the book. It keeps most of the language and incident, and virtually all of the feel of Saint-Exupery’s prose. But a stage production inevitably gets the prince out of the aviator’s head, and that turns out to make a world of difference. Read The Little Prince aloud to your children, and the prince is a lecture to them. Take them to see it, and he’s their representative in a joint adult-child task force to work out the mysteries of existence. You realize that the story doesn’t fall between generations–it’s a meeting ground for a diverse constituency, which is a very different thing.

This Touchstone production of The Little Prince (their fifth) is splendid. Director Ina Marlowe (who’s also the artistic director of the company) has elicited a beautiful tone from the cast: grave, intense, and full of real spiritual depth.

The prince, for the second year in a row, is played by Jamie Kolacky, a fifth-grader with a broad, inquisitive face, a handsome blond mop, and a preternatural self-assurance. He accomplishes the worthy task of making the prince simultaneously ordinary and deeply alien. Judith Easton gives the fox a hectic, doggish quality without falling into mere physical gags. Like several of the actors, she has worked sign language into part of her performance. This could have become gimmicky, but it isn’t. Easton has to get across Saint-Exupery’s central idea: that we must tame the world and be tamed by it if we are to live happily. As she performs the famous speech, the stylized gestures seem utterly in character, a way of underlining the magic behind the words.

Keli Garrett is well-choreographed as the prince’s flower and the snake whose venom returns him home. And Ashby King, Samantha Dinnis, Heather Linden, and George Matthew turn in well-conceived vignettes as a host of characters met by the prince in his travels among the stars.

At the center of the production, of course, is the aviator, Saint-Exupery’s stand-in. Here the part is played with wonderful intensity by Melinda Moonahan. Moonahan goes for the music in her lines, gives them an almost Shakespearean treatment that pays off from start to finish. (My five-year-old companion currently maintains that he didn’t like anything about the show, which is what one does when one is five; when Moonahan was narrating, he couldn’t take his eyes off her.)

There’s something maternal about her delivery, too, and that’s a terrific choice for the show. The book tends to emphasize the prince’s role as a younger version of the aviator. With a woman as the aviator, we see the level of the story that’s about parents and children. Strangely, that seems to strip away the tale’s sentimentality while deepening its emotion. Certainly a male aviator can handle lines like, “What moves me so deeply, about this little prince who is sleeping here, is his loyalty to a flower.” But Moonahan, in her leather helmet and breeches and long white scarf–well, she gets more out of it than I for one ever saw on the printed page.

The production lives up to the performances: Patricia Hart’s costumes, especially the prince’s green velvet coat with stars for epaulets, evoke the book vividly. Brian Traynor has covered the stage with sand and created a simple, handsome sky full of stars. Adam Gorgoni’s score has the same sound as the actors: detailed, generous, and rich with emotion. This may not be the merriest Christmas show in town, but it’s a worthy one. And remember what the fox says: “One runs the risk of weeping a little, if one lets himself be tamed . . .”