Touchstone Theatre

For years, people have been shoving copies of The Little Prince in my face, insisting that the book is supremely beautiful and profound. I’ve been given copies in three languages, and dutifully read them all, but even the cadence and flow of the original French failed to elicit the mystical insights that were sending others into rapture.

So I concluded that the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, belonged in the same category as Kahlil Gibran, Rod McKuen, and other gooey sentimentalists who coated their prose with a glaze of sincerity that made their confections seem solid and substantial. I figured I could see right through the glaze to the sap inside, so I wasn’t expecting to find much in the Touchstone Theatre’s production of The Little Prince.

But verily (as Gibran’s prophet liked to say), I looked upon the show, and it was good. Yes, enthusiasts have oversold Saint-Exupery’s brief fable for adults, and yes, it is insufferably sweet at times; but it’s also a gentle, inoffensive call for connection between people who have been isolated by the cult of efficiency technology has spawned. In a way, Saint-Exupery is merely reasserting Christ’s admonition to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” which makes The Little Prince a natural for the Christmas season.

In fact, this story can be read as an allegory about the very event Christmas celebrates. The clues are quite overt. Like the Christ child, the little prince comes to earth in the desert, near the Mediterranean, directly beneath his own private star. His time on earth is predetermined, and when the time comes for his departure, he is afraid. But like Christ, the little prince prevails over death. “I shall look as if I were dead,” he tells his aviator friend, “and that will not be true.” Sure enough, the body disappears, and the little prince is swept heavenward, back to his home.

The Touchstone production is scrupulously faithful to the book. The set is a big sand dune, representing the Sahara, where the narrator–an aviator–is desperately trying to fix his airplane before he runs out of drinking water. While the aviator is asleep, the little prince appears (wearing a costume taken directly from Saint-Exupery’s own drawing of the character). He asks the aviator for a drawing of a sheep that he can take back to his asteroid, and the two become friends.

While the aviator narrates, the audience sees the little prince at home on his asteroid, cleaning his three volcanoes and tending his rose.

Also depicted are the little prince’s travels to other diminutive stars, each one home to a single peculiar character–a lonely king who tries to make the little prince his subject, a conceited man who tries to make an admirer of him, a tippler who is drinking to forget that she is ashamed of drinking, a businessman who claims to own all the stars, a lamplighter who must light and douse the lone streetlight once every minute, and a geographer who has never visited the places he writes about.

These encounters make Saint-Exupery’s point of view very clear. He wrote the book in 1942. Science and technology, once believed to be the servants of mankind, had helped to give the world the ruthlessly efficient Nazi war machine, and subverted the fragile bonds that foster a sense of community. Instead, a consumer society had arisen, fueled by industrial growth, and people had been transformed into mere purchasing units.

And so the little prince is treated like a commodity: he’s a potential subject for the king, an admirer for the conceited man. Other characters, such as the lamplighter, the businessman, and the railway switchman he meets on earth, represent the senseless “busy-ness” that keeps a consumer society going. The only hope for us, according to Saint-Exupery, is to cultivate friendship, which is as fragile as the little prince’s precious rose. (As the fox says, in the most often quoted passage in the book, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”)

This bleak view of modern society lies just below the surface of an innocent fantasy, making The Little Prince a children’s story for adults. Director Sandra Grand embraces this duality by shunning anything cute, coy, or precious. Performances are animated and clever, but always dignified. Even the animals and the humanoid rose behave themselves.

And Joe Sikora, as the little prince, gives a remarkably sophisticated performance for a sixth-grader. Sikora has never acted before, but he seems perfectly relaxed and confident in his difficult role. Grand apparently learned a thing or two about working with children when she directed A Christmas Carol last year and the year before.

Ric Kraus, a newcomer to Chicago, relies a bit too much on his winning smile, but ultimately he endows the aviator with a simple, childlike charm. And the other cast members–Annette Azcuy, Virginia Harding, McKinley Johnson, Jeffrey Jones, David Kropp, and Kraig Swartz–bring ingenuity and wit to their multiple roles.

Even in this fine adaptation, The Little Prince still seemed rather precious to me. It’s so serious, so sentimental, so . . . French. But the Touchstone production brought out aspects of the story I had never noticed before, without getting bogged down in “matters of consequence” (as the little prince describes adult concerns). As evidence of its charm and grace, I can point to the complete attention my six-year-old daughter gave the proceedings. The play apparently didn’t spark the flame of brotherly love in her heart, judging from the altercation she had with her little brother the following morning, but it had enough action and charm to keep her enthralled. And it impressed her old man too.