People’s Light & Theatre Company adds to its distinguished history of plays based on children’s literature with Dwayne Hartford’s theatrically rich, thematically mature adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s 2006 Boston Globe Horn Book Award-winning novel The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.
Their production, based on Chicago Children’s Theatre’s staging, brings many Windy City artists to Malvern, including director Stuart Carden, his designers, and three of the play's four actors. Barrymore Award winner Charlie DelMarcelle represents Philadelphia well, voicing the inner thoughts of the title character.
No normal doll
Edward Tulane is a two-foot-tall rabbit, made almost entirely of china, in Paris. Seven-year-old Abeline (Dana Omar) names him, dresses him in custom-made silk clothes, winds his pocket watch, and makes him her constant companion – until a confrontation with bullies begins his 20-year adventure.
Through Edward’s journeys, DelMarcelle speaks Edward’s point of view. He’s helpless, unable to move his limbs or even blink his (sighted) eyes, but observes the world around him. At first, he’s most concerned with his comfort and appearance, grumbling about his crooked tie and Abeline’s failure to place him where he can see the night sky. A dark tale told by Pellegrina (Emily Peterson), Abeline’s grandmother – eerily performed by shadow puppets – poses a puzzling moral for Edward: “How can a story end happily if there is no love?”
On one level, Edward Tulane reveals how a toy can touch many lives as it changes hands, always comforting someone in need. More profoundly, the story charts the emotional growth of a character that begins as an inanimate object – the ultimate blank slate -- and grows to know love, not a happy or easy accomplishment. As a wise doll tells Edward, “If you have no intention to love and to be loved, this whole journey is pointless.”
Enchantment and emotion
The production’s theatrical magic alone makes the 80-minute play an enchanting experience, starting with the ensemble’s seemingly effortless transformations through many characters. Reggie D. White, Omar, and Peterson play all the people Edward meets, a range of Depression-era survivors coping with poverty and displacement. Along with DelMarcelle, they sing and play composers Jessie Fisher and Erik Hellman’s lovely folk songs and scene underscoring, using the many musical instruments – piano, banjo, ukulele, mandolin, guitar, steel guitar, harmonica, flute, and more – stashed on John Musial’s tall, wooden barn set, illuminated delicately by Lee Fiskness. Rachel Anne Healy’s costumes help define all those characters quickly, and she also designed, with Timothy Mann, the blank-faced Edward doll and, with Megan Turner, his many outfits.
I’m not one to tear up at the slightest provocation, so admitting I felt the tears stirring as Edward experiences love, need, and joy along with tragic loss, loneliness, and heartbreak is no small thing. While certainly appropriate for people of all ages, I hope no one hesitates to bring children because of the poverty, sadness, and, yes, death Edward witnesses. Stories that rest in a safe, shallow comedic or sentimental zone far from reality are seldom remembered as meaningful or important ones.
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane conjures the simple miracle that theater, with its old-fashioned low-tech tricks and, as Moliere wrote, “six feet of boarding and a passion or two,” can move us to care for an inanimate object that’s suddenly endowed with a story and a soul.