CTM's "Charlotte's Web" Spins a Story of Friendship
That’s the excited cry that rings through the Zuckerman family’s barn when Wilbur the pig wakes up one morning and finds a special message written in the spider web above his pen. And the audience gets equally excited about the young pig’s journey, thanks to Children’s Theater of Madison’s beautiful production of Charlotte’s Web, running in The Playhouse at Overture through October 5. Directed by CTM associate artistic director Mike Lawler, the classic book by E.B. White is translated to the stage by an able, racially diverse cast, portraying both human and barnyard characters. But predictably, it’s Charlotte the caring spider who steals the show.
The story begins when Fern (a tender-hearted, pigtailed Jillian Sysma) pleads with her father (Denzel Taylor) not to kill the runt of the litter of pigs that was born overnight. Giving in to his daughter’s pleas, Fern names the tiny pig Wilbur and feeds him with a baby bottle until he’s old enough to go to her uncle’s farm. At this stage Wilbur is portrayed by several young performers dressed in simple pink cotton pants and long-sleeved shirts, pink tennis shoes and adorable pink stocking caps, with folds on each side to approximate ears. (Creative and striking costumes by Monica Kilkus.)
When the similarly attired but larger Wilbur (adult performer Sean Anthony Jackson) begins life away from Fern, he reacts like any abandoned youngster would. He’s sad, he’s bored, and he’s lonely. Jackson embodies those feelings fully, trying to scrunch his long body into a tiny ball as he searches for a comfortable sleeping position in his new pen. Frightened, he starts and jumps at all the unfamiliar sounds in the barn. This is when Charlotte (Jessica Lanius) comes to Fern’s rescue with the most simple and profound act—offering to be his friend.
From high on her perch in her metal web, Lanius’ warm voice offers reassurance, comfort, and the promise to literally watch over the little pig as he sleeps. Dressed in a black leotard, fingerless gloves and a pouf of black tulle, she doesn’t need any extra legs to navigate her extensive jungle gym web. Moving silently with the graceful bends and lunges of an arachnid, Lanius often appears in new places unexpectedly. With maternal care and determination, she spins messages that will turn Wilbur into a local celebrity instead of a tasty ham. It’s Charlotte and Wilbur’s relationship that catches hold of the audience and propels the show forward, so it’s a shame it takes them so long to meet.
Overall the livestock characters in Charlotte’s Web are much more interesting than their human counterparts, with actors incorporating key animal characteristics into their portrayals, without overdoing it. Dressed in a wool sweater, Denzel Taylor makes a convincing old gray sheep, through both his physicality and his wavering voice. Likewise, the rat Templeton (Jaclyn June Johnson) makes delightful entrances, popping up through a hatch in the stage floor whenever she hears her name. Dressed in olive green cargo pants and vest (practical if you are a scavenger), she sniffs, climbs, darts, and nibbles to remind us of her rodent pedigree. And the entire goose family is positively charming. Gander (Casem AbuLughod) bobs his head meaningfully as he repeats and gargles his words, his arms tucked behind his off-white suit. And his mate Goose (Paige Bourne) is the picture of a prim matron in her pumpkin orange heels and tights, off-white, pearl buttoned sweater, and numerous petticoats puffing up her gray print, full skirt. The goslings, when they hatch, look like cheerful yellow Peeps in tutus.
The set, designed by Keith Pitts, is a beautiful background for the story, morphing easily from farmhouse to lofty barn. The exposed wooden beams give the entire stage a warm feeling, and several clotheslines are deployed thoughtfully to hide areas that are not in use. The transformation to the county fairgrounds is simple and wonderfully effective – just add a barker (AbuLughod in another energetic role), a brightly lit sign and a Ferris wheel in the background.
Just as there are victories in the story – Wilbur wins a special prize at the fair for being so extraordinary – there are also more somber moments. As Charlotte nears the end of her time, Lanius’s arms droop and she leans her head against the web she has created. Her voice becomes older and more tired. Her departure is hard for Wilbur and for the audience, but seeing her little spiderlings crawling all over the pig at the show’s end might be the most gentle explanation of the cycle of life and death ever penned.
The production contained few misfires--such as the initial, illegible message from Charlotte—but the biggest problem was the script. Adapting a much-read and much-loved book for the stage is a daunting task, but it’s hard not to find Joseph Robinette’s version lacking. The lines feel bare and incomplete, lacking the charm of the book and particularly short-changing Fern’s relationship with Wilbur. The other disappointment was that the show couldn’t adequately utilize the talents of the cast. In particular, Lachrisa Grandberry and Elijah Edwards were wasted in small flat parts. One hopes they’ll be back onstage with CTM soon, in more dynamic roles.