At first sight of the evocative set, starkly silhouetted against an enormous white backdrop, you begin thinking that this Laguna Playhouse children's play may be something special.
You won't be disappointed.
The Playhouse's Youth Theatre is presenting Suzan Zeder's "Mother Hicks," an exceptional drama for older children (8 and up). Zeder, whose works are characterized by their honesty and depth, has written a Depression-era play that is striking in its freshness and lack of sentimentality.
An orphan, known only as Girl, is moved from one foster family to another in a small, dying Midwestern town in 1935. No one can afford to keep her. It is natural that she make a connection with two other outcasts--a deaf mute young man named Tuc and Mother Hicks, an old woman whose solitary ways and knowledge of folk medicine have earned her the label "witch."
Tuc (Douglas McDonald) is the narrator, signing his observations to the audience as others in the cast interpret aloud, either alone or in chorus. Actor McDonald, deaf himself, signs with grace and strength--it is an integral part of the production.
Rebekah Baker, a slight little girl with pigtails, plays Girl with the right blend of steel and vulnerability. When Baker describes a foster mother as having "a face like an old foot," it is both funny and sad because Baker has made us see this feisty child's pain.
Baker, on stage most of the time, has a big job to do and for the most part succeeds, as if she has learned not just lines, but their emotional content as well.
Marge Anderson, as Mother Hicks, avoids cliche--she is as much a survivor as Girl and has been at it longer. Laconic, keeping her own grief private, her affection is the rough kind--"You have the memory of a pissant," she tells Girl, whom she has nursed through a serious illness and injury.
When her grief and pain explode during a confrontation with townspeople who think she has kidnaped Girl, the contrast is shocking.
The rest of the cast does well, but experience obviously varies.
As Alma, the foster mother who yearns to tame and keep Girl, Lisa Hale is convincing. In the role of her husband, Hosiah, who thinks it is a bad idea, John-David White is hard-nosed but no caricature.
Lyndie Robbins and Jennifer Triebwasser, as storekeeper and store patron, have less dimension. Michael Gaffney handles his dual roles well, playing a foster father and a member of the Federal Writer's Project who is researching local folklore.
Marthella Randall's Depression costuming is fine. Jacquie Moffett's set design and Stephen Shaffer's lighting are class acts, from the wooden windmill that looms over the town to the hazy, pale-blue sky that darkens to red at sunset and then turns sad at night, with a sliver of moon.
Director Scott Davidson's sensitive touch has brought a play of substance to life, giving children's theater a dignity it too often lacks.
"Mother Hicks" will be performed Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Road in Laguna Beach. Tickets: $3, children; $5, adults. Information: (714) 494-8021.