Lifeline Theatre

Maybe Lifeline took a cue from the sober season for its title, but its Wintery Tails, the latest in the theater’s KidSeries, isn’t exactly packed with high jinks, handsprings, and flapdoodle (the kind of children’s-theater acrobatics that often confuse more than amuse little ones). It takes place in a bare-bones third-floor space that quickly fills to bursting with kids (on throw rugs or laps) and adults (warily sitting behind them). Except for Rebecca Hamlin’s platforms and stair set, the only signs that anything theatrical is about to happen are the twinkling lights and white and black sashes strung along the ceiling. Clearly it’s the story telling–not attention-grabbing props and costumes–that must hold the kids’ interest.

Happily it does, easily and impressively, through 40 minutes and two stories. Zlateh the Goat by Isaac Bashevis Singer and “Dolce Domum” from Kenneth Grahame’s beloved The Wind in the Willows are simple, winning tales about the joy of comradeship, the pain of homesickness, and the challenge of finding your way home through winter’s perils. And it’s a properly evenhanded program, one story inspired by Hanukkah, the other by Christmas.

In Zlateh the Goat, a furrier, afraid that a mild winter will ruin his business, orders his eldest son Aaron to sell the family goat. (The goat, a very expressive marionette, is immediately lovable.) The boy doesn’t want to part with a family friend; the goat wisely fears a trap. A rising blizzard forces the travelers to seek shelter inside a huge warm haystack. For Zlateh it’s goat heaven–both shelter and food. Aaron, having exhausted his rations, gratefully drinks the milk Zlateh generously provides. Entranced by his temporary home and faithful friend, Aaron imagines himself as a “snow child” buried deep in the earth. “We must all accept what God brings us,” says the ubiquitous storyteller.

When the storm lets up, Aaron won’t sell the goat that saved his life. He eagerly returns home, where the goat is rewarded (to the furrier’s delight the winter turns out to be harsh after all–and this was before animal-rights activists). Zlateh the Goat, which opened with a chorus of “Shalom Aleichem,” ends with a Hanukkah song and dance.

Michael Shepperd plays Aaron with childlike receptivity and wonder, Meryl Friedman vigorously narrates the adventure, and Sandy Snyder operates the goat into a life of its own.

“Dolce Domum,” the second–and more rollicking–offering, is evocative and Dickensian. It too is a hymn to snug domesticity and the warmth that friendship offers in the depths of winter. It chronicles the journey of Rat (Snyder) and Mole (Friedman) to Rat’s riverbank home, where a big supper awaits them. But they never get there; suddenly overwhelmed by familiar smells, Mole becomes severely homesick for Mole End, the underground digs he hasn’t seen in a long time, and the unselfish Rat goes home with him.

When they arrive, the friends blow the dust away, unwrap a coat tree, two chairs, and a hope chest from a rug, and set about foraging for a feast. (As they went through the age-old charms of playing house, the little girls in the crowd perked up.) To complete the happy return, a band of caroling field mice–Shepperd, flanked by two life-size cardboard duplicates of himself–drop by to sing Grahame’s original carol “Bringing You Joy in the Morning” (with music by Jacquie Krupka).

When the delighted Rat and Mole suddenly discover they’re surrounded by an audience of children, they ask them to give their names and to share a poem. One little boy offered “Casey at the Bat” then panicked when it came to delivering the goods. But at the drop of a cue the kids eagerly joined in a chorus of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Finally, after supper and before sleep, Mole gives thanks for his precious burrow.

Wisely, Steve Totland’s staging restricts the young audience’s participation to the story’s end (start too soon and overeager kids want permanent parts in the play). Their accents firmly in place, Snyder and Friedman are very sensible British animals; Friedman’s self-deprecating Mole is particularly poignant in his sudden grief for the home he left behind. As the world’s largest field mouse, Shepperd is impish fun throughout and gives the kind of contagiously conspiratorial performance that kids delight in: it takes them into the secrets of the show and both mocks make-believe and feeds on it.

As both stories deal with homesickness, it might have been fitting to have somehow included those around us who have lost their homes–to let children know that not all people have a secure Mole End, and that some are stuck in the snow like Aaron but can’t find pleasant, warm haystacks to snuggle up in. But maybe this kind of guilt is for grown-ups.