- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 2004

This year, the holiday spirit can be found in a barn.

Not the Pottery Barn, but in the woodshed at a rural farm, where Wilbur the pig (Steve Wannall) and Charlotte the spider (Dawn Ursula) have taken up residence. The story of their great friendship is chronicled in E.B. White’s classic 1952 children’s book “Charlotte’s Web,” which is brought to life by Imagination Stage with all its melancholy and simple goodness gloriously intact.

“Charlotte’s Web” touches on kindness, salvation, and the cycle of life without pandering to children or shielding them from the universal truth that things die, yet live on in our memories and our sadness.

The Imagination Stage production, directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer, conveys this truth without mollycoddling, emphasizing the circle of life and death while making the 90-minute show as gently entertaining and memorable as the book.

You would have to be an unrepentant carnivore not to get choked up over Wilbur’s plight. The runt of the litter, Wilbur is about to be put down before an idealistic farm girl, Fern (Jennifer Driscoll), pleads for his life. He waddles off to her uncle’s farm, where he meets Charlotte and her companions Goose and Gander (both played with honking vitality by John S. Stanier), Sheep (Ricardo Frederick Evans), and Templeton (Stephon Walker), the gluttonous rat.

The uncle is not a card-carrying member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but envisions Wilbur as a ham in progress. Charlotte, who has taken a liking to Wilbur, decides to intercede, hatching a plan that would elevate Wilbur from potential pork chop to porcine wonder of the world. Her idea involves spinning into her web words describing Wilbur, figuring “people believe almost everything they see in print.”

The plan works, although at great physical cost to Charlotte. But she is happy to do it, saying, “You are a good pig and deserve to live,” and this unselfish act prompts Wilbur to respond in kind when Charlotte needs his help.

“Charlotte’s Web” is a graceful treatise on friendship and the wisdom of nature. Miss Bryer uses stylistic movement to suggest the passage of seasons, the organic movement of time in a year in the life of farmyard animals and their keepers. This rhythmic movement gives the play a plaintive air that is at once haunting and calm.

In contrast to the lightly sorrowful air of the piece are the lively performances by the cast. Clad in a sailor suit, a straw hat with pig’s ears and a squiggly tail, Mr. Wannall bears an uncanny resemblance to the illustrations in Mr. White’s book — he even has the quizzical, slightly distracted look of Wilbur down pat, and his hands seem to fall naturally into the shape of hooves.

Miss Ursula is the soul of kindness and mercy as Charlotte, climbing all over the gigantic web in James Kronzer’s set with dainty athleticism, just as you imagine a spider would. Mr. Walker’s skulking portrayal of the rat Templeton so captures the ickiness of vermin that you can practically see his whiskers quivering. Miss Driscoll brings spunk and intelligence to the admittedly less interesting human role of Fern.

Without glitz or an obvious seasonal message, “Charlotte’s Web” captures the spirit of the holidays in its simple tale of love, loss and perpetual renewal.

****

WHAT: “Charlotte’s Web”

WHERE: Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda

WHEN: 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturdays, 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Sundays, 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. matinees Dec. 24, 27-30. Through Jan. 9.

TICKETS: $10 to $15

PHONE: 301/280-1660

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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