I recently tried to explain war to my seven year old daughter, and generally failed miserably. She quickly got that it's stupid, it's mean and people shouldn't do that to each other, and after that I was left with a lot of philosophical sputtering. All the more reason to be impressed by Allison Gregory's excellent young adult drama "Even Steven Goes To War". Told from the perspective of an imaginative ten year old boy in search of a Grandfather who never returned from the Viet Nam War, it manages to be playful and amusing and adventurous, while never losing touch with the seriousness of its topic. Using a magic portal that transports him to that distant jungle war, we see those he knows best transformed into persons very like those he never knew. And we see how the experience of war changes everyone touched by it, especially Even Steven.
This production, directed by Bob DeDea, doesn't have the kind of acting finesse the script really calls for, but does manage to convey the sincerity and importance of the quest. Fortunately, it also has a wonderful little girl named Maia Lee playing the lead. Not only does she deliver all of her lines with clarity, smart emphasis and conviction, but she has a wonderful sense of play that drives the imaginative narrative throughout. She makes us believe how important it is for Even to find his Grandfather, to follow his best friend, Joey, and to be re-united with his loyal, brave, stuffed-dog Heinz. Best of all, Maia Lee doesn't have that sticky, precocious polish one so frequently finds in talented child actors. She is fun and natural and still entirely believable, which is invaluable to a play that is so whimsical in technique, and so grounded in emotion.
Christopher Bange plays Joey with a fairly heavy dose of little boy clichÈ, but it does become touching when that same child finds himself in mortal combat. A scene where he confronts a Viet Cong in the jungle, a life and death test of character, was the evening's best and strongest dramatic incident. Ben Harper did good work as a thoroughly pet-able stuffed dog come to life, and a cartoon-drawn Commander. I also liked Melissa Mason as Olivia, a rather mystical sylph, both motherly and romantic. The remainder of the cast was simply on that community theatre level that results in too many missed moments, and interferes with the pace of the drama too often.
Rollin Thomas designed a colorful and versatile multi-level set that allows us to easily move from Even's bedroom to a laughably hip underworld, to the long-ago jungles of Viet Nam. The lobby is decorated with children's collages of war images and ideas, and the intention of this play as a launching pad for discussion and insight is obvious. The play is certainly better than this production, but the effort, and particularly the performance of the talented young lead, is still worthy and admirable. At the very least, it helps me to be less inept and tongue-tied when my daughter wants to know why "people do that to each other".
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