Imagination is the creative trait that one should take with them for an evening at the theatre. Imagination will make the walls disappear as the lighst go down and come back up with the curtain, transporting you from the auditorium to the location of the play. Imagination will let you believe that the actors on stage are the characters whom they portray, making their dialogue their words, ideas, and expressions. Imagination will suspend time, whether the two or so hours of the play, or the days and weeks and months and years that the play make span. Imagination is the survival skills that Pollyanna uses to overcome the adverse circumstances of her story.
The McCoy Grand’s recent production of Pollyanna takes us back to New England, this time Vermont, in 1910. We had recently visited that era in Eugene O’Neill’s play Ah, Wilderness!, but these plays have little to do with each other. O’Neills world is the relatively secure middle-class, American family drama where the central challenge is the coming of age of the younger son. Pollyanna has more of an atompher of a Dickens tale, with the wealthy and labor classes of this village struggling with the rigidity of their thoughts, and a number of orphans tossed in to disrupt their grumbling.
In case you missed the Disney movie adaptation, as I did, Pollyanna’s mother and father have died. They left their New England home to be missionaries. After their deaths, their daughter, Pollyanna, lives at the mission until a surviving aunt, Polly, is located and agrees, out of filial obligation to take in her niece. Polly is a spinster, and hardly interested or talented at rearing children. The town is filled with irritable and lonely adults and children. In contrast to Pollyanna, who arrives with nearly nothing, they have comfortable lives but all lack enthusiasm and enjoyment in their positions. Pollyanna had learned from her father, after her mother’s death, to play “the game”, in which whenever confronted with potential disappointment, she finds something to be glad about. Thus, into Bentonville, VT she arrives, teaching everyone whom she encounters “The Game”. In the end, each character is transformed by learning to view events differently. Obviously, this is where the term “being a Pollyanna” came from, though we have turned it into a derisive concept, rather than a skill.
The McCoy Grand’s production has a large cast, with the child’s part of Pollyanna being double cast. We saw Lauren Gresham in the title role, and she is a delight to follow for the evening. Her smile and bright eyes left little doubt that her character had the imagination to be resilient. She was particularly well suited to play off of her dominating and staid aunt Polly (Betty Stickley) whose facade of formality only falls in the last scene. She also has the cunning to talk Dr. Chilton (Steve Davis) into practicing his own medicine to heal emotional wounds from years ago, and the warmth to melt the ice cold heart of Mr. Pendleton (Roger Wilcoxen), who mends both his broken leg and broken heart. With fellow orphan, Jimmy Bean (Matthew Wright), she washes the dirt off of his face, but takes none of his charm away in the scrubbing. Matthew hardly needs help as his stage presence is stunning. He shows no hint of fear to walk right up to front, center stage into the spot light to engage us in narrating the play. I saw Don Ameche perform the narrator in Our Town in his last production in NYC about 1992. Matthew was right up there with Don Ameche in giving us the scoop.
This production of Pollyanna gave us numerous other delightful scenes by actors who may have had just a scene or two. Crystal Larson contrasts Polly’s poise and pompousness, with her portrayal of Nancy, Polly’s housekeeper, who is all eye-rolling and gestures behind Polly’s back. Hunter Ayers, as Tom, assists Nancy is delivering luggage and other items in a mater of fact manner of one doing his duty. Katherine Jackson, as Mrs. Durgin rounds out the house management, keeping a constantly clean home, while eavesdropping on the commotion that Pollyanna creates when she joins the household.
In the town, Colton Young, as the Store Clerk is often busy setting up and cleaning in front of the store, while Blake Shocky, as Pastor, tries to exact the correct rhetorical style of the upcoming sermon. Mrs. Snow (Elsie Ward) is an invalid bound not just by her wheelchair, but by her discontent attitude. Though her attire attests to her status, she sees only what she does not have. Tessa Blizzrd, as Millie Snow, imitates Ms. Wards mannerisms perfectly, bringing the inseparable nature of the mother-daughter relationship. The Payson family, near divorce before they meet Pollyanna, bring us the contrite Mrs. Payton (Sharon Gresham), and adorable children, Joey (Layne Miller) and Emily (Tori Humphries). I see some good adventures for those two in future plays. There are a half a dozen other folks in the town whom Pollyana befriends. Each learns to use her or his imagination, to play The Game.
The set and costume crews out did themselves with this production. We see the town shops back stage, and upstage aunt Polly’s parlor to left and Dr. Chilton’s office/Mr. Pendleton’s front room to the right. Susan Garrett and Cally Curtis found some grand furnishing to adorn those spaces. The costumes that Faye Smith and Cally Curtis outfitted the actors in were right to the period as well as to the sentiment of the play. I will admit that during some of the Scott Joplin musical interludes between scenes, I wondered how the ladies were doing some pretty complicated costume changes in the wings.
It may seem easy to pass of the message of Pollyanna as a children piece: cute, enjoyable, but hardly applicable to our stress filled lives and modern sensibilities. But, I will differ, for Pollyanna’s “game” is not much different from several forms of therapy for depression: mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy, didactic behavioral therapy. For a couple of hours, we were able to set aside our important, adult conflicts, to rediscover what children do: play.