UNCLE LEMON’S SPRING
Players Workshop’s Children’s Theatre
at the Second City
Frank Galati’s acting is consistently inventive and smart. His directing is praised to heaven by the people who work for him. And his specialty–adapting literature to the stage–resulted in a sublime adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath for Steppenwolf that won him lavish praise from John Steinbeck’s hard-to-please widow.
But before everything else Galati is a teacher, and this may prove to be his greatest contribution to Chicago theater. His former students seem to be everywhere on the local theater scene. John Logan, whose remarkable play Hauptmann has just been revived by Victory Gardens, studied under Galati. So did John Carlile, whose adaptation of The Great Gatsby for Wisdom Bridge showed flashes of brilliance. Now two more of Galati’s students are showing their potential in a delightful adaptation of Jane Yolen’s Uncle Lemon’s Spring for Lifeline Theatre’s children’s series.
Steve Totland adapted the book, and Jessica Thebus directed the production. Both are pursuing their PhDs in performance studies with Galati at Northwestern, and both already display traces of the ingenuity and dramatic insight that permeate his own adaptations.
The story is narrated by Letty, an orphan girl being raised by her Uncle Lemon, a poor farmer scratching out a living on a remote mountain farm. Made desperate by a drought, Uncle Lemon seeks relief from Merlie, a hairy “witchin’ man” who lives in a nearby cave. In exchange for Uncle Lemon’s last chicken, Merlie uses his divining rod to locate an underground stream, which, after some digging, provides a geyser of clear mountain water. Uncle Lemon and Letty share the water with their neighbors, prompting Preacher Morton to pay a visit and demand $5 to bless the spring. Lemon explains that he doesn’t have any money, so Preacher Morton demands a chicken by the following morning or he’ll foreclose on the farm.
Adapting such a story is tricky business. The plot must be condensed, for even a children’s book is too long to enact in full. The dialogue must be doled out judiciously to the actors. And the narration must be turned into dialogue, which is particularly difficult in this case because the story is told by Letty, who could end up doing almost all of the talking. To solve this problem, Totland and Thebus borrowed the technique Galati recently used in an adaptation for Steppenwolf of Anne Tyler’s Earthly Possessions, which is also narrated by the main character. Galati had two actresses portray Charlotte Emory, the woman abducted during a bank robbery and forced to accompany a robber to Florida. One actress participated in the action; the other spoke to the audience about the action, often relating Charlotte’s own thoughts.
In Uncle Lemon’s Spring Rebecca Tennison, who plays Letty, provides some of the narration and even reveals some of her own thoughts. For example, while watching Uncle Lemon stand on one foot and spit through his fingers to ward off Merlie’s “bad magic,” Letty tells the audience, “It just about broke my heart seein’ Uncle Lemon lookin’ scared, ’cause he’s the bravest man I know.” Maggie Carney–always onstage, guitar in hand–serves as a supplemental storyteller, taking over when Letty is caught up in the action. This story-within-a-story approach may sound confusing, but it maintains the intimate tone of the book.
And maintaining the tone of the text is always the most difficult aspect of any adaptation. Uncle Lemon’s Spring is a child’s perspective on events and must be told in a way that puts children at ease with adult actors. Thebus promotes this by having Carney onstage leading a sing-along as children and their parents trickle into the theater. One by one the other cast members join in, chatting amiably between songs with the children seated on the rug in front of the playing space. Only gradually do the actors slip into character: when they start to complain about the heat, Carney leads renditions of “Ain’t Gonna Rain No More, No More” and “Sweet Water Rolling”–songs that provide a gentle segue into the action.
The cast members also promote the friendly tone of the book with performances that are slightly oversized and cartoonish. Addison Grant Kerr’s Preacher Morton is a wonderful combination of bad guy and buffoon. William Bannon allows a touch of boyish mischief to show through Uncle Lemon’s no-nonsense personality, especially when he’s tricking Preacher Morton. And with her bright eyes and youthful face, Tennison passes easily for a preadolescent girl.
Even Alan Donahue’s set contributes to this tone. Three walls of the room are covered with a cartoon view of the mountains where the story takes place. Merlie’s cave and the buildings are represented by large cartoon cutouts. And a tube of blue cloth blown upward by a fan serves as the geyser.
While Uncle Lemon’s Spring bears the imprint of Frank Galati, Features Creatures, by Players Workshop’s Children’s Theatre at the Second City, bears the imprint of improvisation. Yet this production is a bit too slack to hold the children’s attention.
The show consists of three tales: The Three Pigs Opera, Beauty and the Beast, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The three have been loosely adapted by the director, Linnea Forsberg Kirk, and turned over to the cast members as material for improvisation.
But the cast members are all students at the Players Workshop operated by Kirk’s mother, Josephine Raciti Forsberg, and their performances tend to be a bit awkward and tentative. Worse, their attempts to cultivate audience participation encourage the children to muscle in on the action.
Small children are like the core of a nuclear reactor–the control rods must be kept in place at all times or things will run amok. Things ran amok. At the peformance I saw, one boy felt entitled to stand up and deliver a lengthy critical monologue to the cast, describing with great animation what he did and didn’t like about the show. And a dozen children screamed out several times during the show, “This is boring!”