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Work Resembles Real Life for ‘Ramona Quimby’ Cast

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A family show with a twist: That’s “Ramona Quimby,” the latest touring production from the venerable Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis, set to play at Southland venues, including UCLA’s Freud Playhouse on Saturday.

Adapted by Obie Award-winning playwright Len Jenkin from three of Beverly Cleary’s ever-popular children’s books about Ramona, the mischievous youngest member of the Quimby family, the twist is that this comedy about a mother, father and two sisters, ages 8 and 11, features the real-life Harris family--mom Sara, dad Jim, 11-year-old Katie and 8-year-old Rosie, as well as 10-year-old Matt, who plays the kid next door.

“I’ve had sisters play the roles, that’s not so extraordinary,” said the theater company’s artistic director Jon Cranney. “But to find an acting family with kids the right ages--the odds are incredible.”

Talk about togetherness.

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It was Sara Harris, a professional actor/mom who approached Cranney about her family doing the show. She and Jim Harris, another professional from Minneapolis’ noted Guthrie Theatre, had worked with their three children for the first time in a 1991 Cincinnati production of “A Christmas Carol.”

“It turned out to be the best family experience we had ever had,” Jim Harris said. “In our everyday life we’re like most families, rushing off in all directions, not seeing each other all day long. It brought us closer together.”

The Harrises are unanimous in their enthusiasm for working together. It helps that the Quimbys are so easy for a family to identify with, Jim Harris said.

“Anybody who has read the Cleary books sees themselves in them. There’s lots of similarities for us. Our daughters recognize the sibling rivalry stuff. The dad loses his job--as actors we’re constantly looking for work every time a show ends. It’s all really accessible.”

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All say that hard work on and off the stage is part of the equation. Suitcases crammed with schoolwork accompany the Harrises as they perform around the country.

“I’m keeping up,” Katie said of her assignments, done on the road and in hotel rooms. “Well, almost.” She describes the show as “a really neat experience. I love acting.”

Her siblings agree.

What can audiences expect from the comedy itself?

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Of the “three dramatic engines” that drive the show, Cranney said, “the big arc is Dad losing his job and the family dealing with that. The others are Ramona’s relationship with her third-grade teacher, and Aunt Bea getting married and moving away.”

“Families love this show,” Jim Harris said. “We do school shows and the kids laugh and laugh at the kid stuff. But when we do public shows, and whole families come, all of a sudden the show has all of these different levels and laughs. And lots more texture.

“All we hear about today are dysfunctional families,” he added. “Here’s a functional family that sees problems and works them through--with enormous humor.”

* “Ramona Quimby,” UCLA’s Freud Playhouse, Saturday, 2 and 5 p.m., (310) 825-2101, $11.75-$23.50. Irvine Barclay Theatre, Cheng Hall, 4242 Campus Drive, Monday, 7 p.m., (310) 854-4646, (714) 740-2000, $10-$15. Torrance Cultural Arts Center, James Armstrong Theater, 3330 Civic Center Drive, Feb. 1-2, 7:30 p.m., (310) 781-7171, $10-$12.

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