Touchstone Theatre

at the Theatre Building

Grown-ups never understand anything for themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.–The Little Prince

Because grown-ups are always in danger of forgetting who they once were, Antoine de Saint-Exupery remains a delight and a solace. No one has better explained to children the ways of grown-ups, or reawakened in ex-children that old sense of wonder. Saint-Exupery was an aviator as well as a writer, and when he landed, he used his ethereal prose to record his sky-born epiphanies–discoveries that, once read, seem to have always been inside us, we were just too near the ground to see them.

The Little Prince is the now-cherished novel that Saint-Exupery wrote to console himself during the darkest days of World War II. Very wise in its wonder and impossible to outgrow, this always astonishing book manages to turn poetry into common sense and to transform metaphors into emotional gold. There’s more truth in The Little Prince than in all of E.T.’s wishful thinking and aggressive special effects.

What makes The Little Prince unique–absorbing to read, and to watch in Ina Marlowe’s intelligently faithful Touchstone Theatre staging–is the equal play it gives the adult’s viewpoint and the child’s. You’re always measuring one against the other in order to synthesize the best of both: a child’s patience with exasperating grown-ups, an adult’s willingness to learn new tricks.

Our narrator (and the author’s stand-in) is the Aviator, a childlike adult and failed illustrator who wonderingly relates the adventure he met with when his plane was downed in the Sahara: an eight-day encounter with a curious, determined, and literal-minded visitor from a small planet.

The Little Prince hails from the asteroid B-612, a planetoid he can circumnavigate in three steps; when he’s depressed, it offers him the possibility of 44 sunsets–if he just moves fast enough. There the Little Prince reigns over three volcanoes (two of them active), which he carefully cleans. B-612 is also the home of some dangerous baobab trees (the author’s metaphor for the Nazis, perhaps); if not rooted out, they could infest all of B-612. So the Aviator draws a sheep for the Little Prince to take back with him–it can eat the baobabs, and it has a muzzle so it won’t denude the rest of the planet.

The Little Prince’s great treasure is a flower. It came to him, blown by the wind, as a seed and has now grown into the proud, selfish, artfully prevaricating Rose. The Little Prince uncomplainingly waters this haughty immigrant, and at night places a protective glass globe over her.

The first act of David Zucker’s well-made adaptation covers the Little Prince’s peregrinations from planet to planet. Resembling specialty vaudeville acts, each reveals a Gulliver-like encounter with some adult absurdity. He meets the puffed-up king of a sterile planet, a petty potentate who gets perverse pleasure out of commanding an inevitable sunrise and lording it over his sole subject, an old rat.

Other planetary eccentrics include the conceited person who, though suffering for aeons without hearing a compliment, complacently accepts one when it finally comes, a tippler who drinks because she’s ashamed because she drinks, and a proto-yuppie businessman industriously counting the stars in order to lay claim to the sky.

The Little Prince even meets a lamplighter who, in Kafka-esque style, has been instructed to illuminate the planet’s one streetlight at each rotation–except that now the planet rotates once a minute, and the dutiful public servant never gets a moment’s sleep. The Little Prince, moved by the lamplighter’s unquestioning loyalty, admires only this planet’s inhabitant of the many he meets. (Perhaps–but loyalty as always takes its value from the cause being pursued.)

By the time our princeling reaches earth, he’s homesick for his Rose, especially since a doddering geographer has scared him by telling him his Rose is less important than a mountain because the Rose is only “ephemeral.” As if the geographer were not.

In the second act (which on opening night was signed), the Little Prince’s earthly adventures make him feel vaguely threatened by our planet and homesick for his own, where he now realizes he has a purpose. A poisonous snake tells him it can solve all life’s riddles with a single bite, a railway switchman impresses on him the responsibility of keeping trains on the right track, and a merchant enrages him by trying to sell him pills that save people time by killing their thirst. (Here he is stuck in a desert with too much time and no water.)

In the play’s most moving encounter, a fox teaches the Little Prince how to tame her; the boy finally learns to take responsibility for his beloved but difficult Rose. “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly,” the Fox explains. “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Aided by the riddle-solving Snake, the Little Prince quits his body’s shell and returns to the stars. The Aviator senses that his laughter will reach him from the stars when he needs it. He is left to ponder the mystery of whether the muzzle he drew on the Little Prince’s sheep will really keep it from eating the Little Prince’s floral friend. Of course, the author shows, we too are responsible for our special rose–life on this planet, democracy, justice–and there are lots of hungry sheep and predatory baobab trees to keep us very busy.

Marlowe, Touchstone Theatre’s artistic director, retells the classic with economy and some very clean stagecraft. Brian Traynor’s billowing white sails deftly whirl about to suggest a flurry of forward motion. Evocatively lit by Kevin Snow, the starlit cyclorama and sunset projection nicely set off B-612’s sparkling white sand. Patricia Hart’s picture-perfect costumes are better than Saint-Exupery sketched them, while Adam Gorgoni’s bell-like score subtly underlines each scene’s particular feeling (though sometimes rather intrusively).

Set alongside this technical harmony are some equally well designed performances. Jamie Kolacki is the fourth Little Prince in Touchstone’s annual holiday offering (this is its first Chicago venue); at 10, he’s its youngest, but judging from an impressive bio, he doesn’t lack experience. Kolacki plays his interplanetary voyager with a steadfast directness and open-eyed fervor that sweetly fit the part (though his sometimes pell-mell delivery produces some slurred diction). George Matthew’s Aviator is a model adult, which in this case means a good listener and learner.

Among many telling cameos are Jeff Jones’s hilariously officious businessman, busy with hostile astral takeovers and a literally cosmic greed; Farrel Wilson as the capricious Rose; and Tom Dobrocky as the fatuous asteroid king.

My favorite scene was the lovely exchange between the Little Prince and Judith Easton’s marvelous Fox. Without condescension or cuteness, Easton touchingly conveys the Fox’s lesson that we’re made unique by what we tame. (I know it’s anthropocentric as hell, but psychologically it’s very persuasive.) As the visual counterpart of this lesson, the Prince and Fox perform a graceful taming dance, warmly choreographed by Donald Douglass, that creates a rich stage magic that goes right to the heart.

The Little Prince may praise what’s “invisible to the eye,” but what Touchstone Theatre offers is as much solid spectacle as it is heartcraft. B-612 is worth a visit.