- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 17, 2007

Ten-year-old Junebug (Stephen Thomas) carries the weight of the world on his thin shoulders. School is almost over for the year, and the summer stretches before him like a wide, green lawn. But Junebug stuffs anything troubling him deep inside now that he’s the man of the house for his Mama (Taifa Harris) and younger sister, Tasha (Fatima Quander), because his father’s in prison, possibly forever.

Junebug’s journey to find mentors in his new neighborhood and to lay down some of his burden is the subject of the gentle, disarming play “Junebug and the Reverend,” a world premiere at Imagination Stage directed with great empathy by Kathryn Chase Bryer.

Junebug’s travails filled three books by Alice Mead, who based the works on her experiences working in housing projects in New Haven, Conn. There she found families keeping it together despite desperate circumstances, and children struggling to thrive amid absolute chaos.

Junebug is one of those youngsters. Watchful and keenly observant, he acquired his nickname because of his habit of asking endless questions. In fact, with his big, searching eyes and vigilant manner, Junebug is more of a question mark than an exuberant exclamation point. He’s trying to find a place for himself in a strange school, presided over by bullies, and the retirement community in which his mother works. Mama knows best, first making Junebug take a cranky retired Reverend (Jefferson A. Russell) out for a walk every morning and then insisting that he enroll in summer soccer camp.

At first, Junebug resists any help from his elders, preferring to idealize his long-absent father and remain stoic and isolated. Gradually, he learns that fathers come in many guises — such as the crotchety Reverend; his fourth grade teacher, Mr. Olsen (Sasha Olinick); his mother’s respectful suitor, Walter (James J. Johnson); and even Ms. Williams (Miss Quander, playing two roles), a senior-citizen fitness buff who teaches him martial-arts techniques to help him squelch the class bullies.

The play, somewhat subdued and reality-based, is unusual for Imagination Stage. Other than Junebug’s fearful dreams, no flights of fancy or magical touches exist. “Junebug” is a show about resilience and everyday heroics rather than a childhood caper or escapist fantasy. No one comes to Junebug’s rescue. He has to figure it out for himself.

For all its seriousness, however, you couldn’t find a more appealing hero than Junebug, an underdog who manages to come out on top. Mr. Thomas captures the schlumpy, self-conscious body language of a typical 10-year-old and also the rare, still-waters-run-deep quality of his character. You find yourself sympathizing with Junebug’s grown-up problems and rooting for the triumph of his childlike spirit at the same time.

The adults in his life are also admirable and multitextured — Mr. Russell’s chain-smoking, ruminating Reverend; Mr. Olinick’s gung-ho but firm schoolteacher; Mr. Johnson’s Walter in his infinite patience; and Miss Quander’s Ms. Williams with her disciplined feistiness.

“Junebug and the Reverend” skillfully uses its seaside setting as a metaphor for Junebug’s being cast adrift on watery territory until he finds higher, more secure ground. His dreams are always of sailing, first with his father and then with the Reverend, and every gently bobbing reverie ends with a storm and impending shipwreck. By learning to trust and ask for support, Junebug moves from visions of disaster to calmer waters.

*** WHAT: “Junebug and the Reverend” by Martha King De Silva, based on Alice Mead’s novel

WHERE: Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda

WHEN: 12:30, 3:30 and 7 p.m. Saturdays; 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 25.

TICKETS: $10 to $20

PHONE: 301/280-1660

MAXIMUM RATINGS: FOUR STARS

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