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“That was way better than the book,” declared the young girl seated behind me when the lights went up following the September 22 performance of the Children’s Theatre Company’s Charlotte’s Web. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but director Greg Banks has crafted a graceful and moving production that’s true to the spirit of E.B. White’s classic novel.
With 45 million copies in print, the 1952 book has a plot that’s well-known: Wilbur the pig is in danger of being slaughtered until his friend Charlotte the spider uses her web to weave words of praise for Wilbur (some pig, terrific, radiant); the attention drawn by Charlotte’s web makes the pig a local celebrity and the farmer reconsiders his plans to turn Wilbur into bacon.
While populated by charming characters including Wilbur, Charlotte, Templeton the rat, and other barnyard creatures, there’s a bleak edge to the story: I know from my experience teaching preschool science classes that many youngsters don’t make the connection between farm animals and the dinner table, so Charlotte’s Web could be an eye-opener in that respect. Further, Farmer Zuckerman is forthright about the fact that he’ll only spare Wilbur so long as the pig continues to inspire evidence of arachnid sentience.
Joseph Robinette’s adaptation is forthright about those details, but doesn’t dwell on them. The value of friendship is the showcase theme here, and all the characters are likable—even Templeton, the gluttonous and unreliable rodent, has a heart of gold.
The principal challenge of staging Charlotte’s Web is that you have humans playing animals alongside humans playing humans; Banks and his team handle this nimbly, rightly trusting the abilities of their talented cast to suggest their species through physical characterization. Mary Anna Culligan’s costumes are elegant and minimally suggestive—Templeton gets a tail, but Charlotte doesn’t get any extra legs. Joseph Stanley’s set also sets the mood without getting in the way: the most elaborate stagecraft here is a simple but effective trap-door trick that allows Wilbur to magically transform from a stuffed animal to the young Ethan Davenport.
Davenport strikes just the right tone of wide-eyed innocence, and Joanna Harmon is marvelous as Charlotte. Literature’s most lovable spider could be portrayed as starchy and maternal, but Harmon’s Charlotte is more like a chill BFF. Among the supporting characters, Reed Sigmund gets a lot of laughs with his trashy Templeton—he seems to be channeling Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice—but the show is stolen by Dean Holt as the narcissistic pig against whom Wilbur must compete at the county fair, hilariously costumed in a bovine muscle suit.
This Charlotte gets a long goodbye—perhaps too long, with the show dragging a bit through its last ten minutes—but even so, you (and your kids) will be sad to bid farewell to this winning production.