I believe that the best formula for good children's theatre is simply good theatre, made accessible to children. Seattle Children's Theatre has mounted a perfect example with John Olive's fine adaptation of "Our Only May Amelia", based on Jennifer L. Holm's award winning novel of 19th Century pioneer life in the Pacific Northwest. Solidly acted by a balanced, professional cast and gracefully directed by Kathleen Collins, this beautifully designed and dramatically honest work earns respect with the intelligent rendering of real human drama, never overly heroic, emotionally manipulative, nor theatrically contrived. The story of how a young woman of grit and courage comes of age may be familiar, but everything in this play makes it feel unique, original and convincing.
As May Amelia, Jennifer Lee Taylor has great vitality, and a naturalness that makes it easy to believe that all she knows is this hard-scrabble farm near the mouth of the Columbia, where rain and mud and salmon-slime constitute the natural elements of her world. She is the only girl in the family, in the town, and as she says, "probably in the whole Northwest". As a result, she holds her own against her brothers, easily overwhelms a cousin (Hans Altwies) who has been sent to stay with the family while his father recovers from an injury, and she seems a good match for any other males in the area, with the exception of a cold and harsh father who sees her as a "useless girl". Todd Jefferson Moore builds that role with considerable complexity, making it clear that this man who sees life as "the work that has to be done" learns a good deal over the course of the play about what work is worth doing.
In an ensemble without a notably weak role, Alban Dennis was especially sympathetic as May Amelia's beloved brother, with his great dreams of being a doctor, and his immediate kindness and generosity. Katie Forgette holds all the promise of a greater world, something possible beyond the wilderness, with an elegant portrayal of Aunt Alice, a woman of means with a fine house in the "city" of Astoria. And allowing us the contrast which puts all of May Amelia's emerging values into focus is the selfish, mean-spirited and hurtful Grandmother Patience, played with absolute authority by Susan Corzatte. Christopher Guilmet is the brother whose great achievement is simply finding the courage to strike out on his own, and build his own life. Betsy Schwartz plays a young woman of breeding who helps introduce May Amelia to the alien world of dresses and properly held teacups.
The handsome and evocative stage design by Jennifer Luptoncaptures both the green mystery of rain-soaked, moss-lined Northwest forests and the warmth and simple comfort of a hard-earned home. The basic, but personalized cabin sits center-stage, surrounded by a shadowy lushness. At opposite poles on either side-stage are the great arms of a "sorcerer's tree", a refuge by the river where a girl can go to imagine and wonder, and the fine home of Aunt Alice, where dreams are the everyday furniture. John Olive has such a certain grasp on the way in which the commonplace gains poetic power that the play seems animated by symbols and metaphors, but never in an attention-seeking way. We know this story is particular to these people, but really about us. We know that the way they deal with life and death and fear and hope and the price of personal growth is our own path in everything but detail. That this children's theatre production never compromises with issues as difficult as an infant's death is validated because everything else in this dramatic world seems equally as authentic and substantive. This play respects human experience, and I can't think of anything children's theatre can do that more ennobles both the audience and the stage itself. "Our Only May Amelia" is terrific theatre. Period.
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