A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas
Through Dec. 13 at Nashville Children’s Theatre’s Hill Theatre
It may have seemed corny to more jaded television viewers, but that never stopped the late actor/producer/director Michael Landon from making popular-entertainment history with Little House on the Prairie. Running from 1974 to 1983, the show captured the hearts of millions with its earnest portrait of late-19th-century pioneer families struggling to eke out an existence in the Middle Plains. The long-running series was inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s popular novels, and with Landon at the helm of production, Little House often gave us tear-jerking, arguably overly pious episodes intent on driving home the importance of having a healthy regard for one’s fellow man. Landon never made any bones about his show’s appeal: He was serving up sentiment and family values, and the American public, possibly weary of years of social upheaval, was happy to embrace these stories of a simpler time, when it behooved kinfolk to stick together, when merely putting a meal on the table was a serious challenge.
Tapping into this sense of nostalgia and close-knit family life, Nashville Children’s Theatre is currently offering A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas, Laurie Brooks’ well-crafted dramatization of real-life events from the Ingalls’ prairie adventures. This staging finds the clan struggling through poverty on their way west, enveloped by wintertime cold as they take up temporary residence in Burr Oak, Iowa. Besides their sense of rootlessness, there’s a dark pall cast over the clan, with Ma brooding, Pa dolefully bowing out meditative fiddle music, and young daughters Laura, Mary and Carrie perplexedly trying to keep their chins up. It is not clear at first why Ma Ingalls appears cross with everyone around her, yet Brooks’ deft and restrained script gently and tastefully drops the clues that Ma has recently suffered a miscarriage. This fact is only gradually revealed, however, and it plays out almost as a detail in a mystery, with the audience enduring the same confusion and concern as the Ingalls girls. The theme of loss plays out in concert with the family’s general low morale, setting the stage for more hopeful events.
Central, of course, to the action is Laura, played by Misty Lewis, a veteran of many fine NCT productions. Lewis achieves her share of playful and humorous moments amongst all the family angst, raising the spirits of her sisters, played by Mary Tanner Bailey and NCT newcomer Amy Bebout. But it’s in more deeply affecting moments that Lewis really shines, especially when her character is confronted with the possibility that her parents may allow her to become a companion to a wealthy older lady (Rona Carter), in exchange for educational opportunities. Lewis’ heartfelt speech about love and family unity serves as the cornerstone of the play’s thematic foundation, and she delivers it with intensity and meaning.
As we have come to expect at NCT, the performances are uniformly very good. In addition to Lewis’ excellent work, Carter makes the most of her plot-pivotal turn, and Jeff D. Boyet and Evelyn Blythe do nicely understated work as Ma and Pa, struggling with their personal issues and patiently, courageously preparing for their eventual move farther west.
Scot Copeland displays his usual sure-handed, but subtly imaginative, directorial talents. The Ingalls’ travels by covered wagon are played simply on a minimalist but useful set, yet through a kind of playacting, the actors convey the sense of rugged terrain and the open air, while a few cleverly interpolated sound effects offer proof that you don’t need a real horse onstage to believe that one is there. In particular, Copeland’s nuanced treatment of the miscarriage is a fine study in showing, not telling, and he gets a solid assist from Blythe’s believably distracted, morose portrayal.
True to the spirit of the holiday season, the Little House phenomenon and NCT’s mission to convey positive messages to its young audiences, the production winds up with a well-worn but upbeat reminder that, even in the season of giving, people are more important than presents.
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