Just like the classic children's novel, the stage adaptation of "A Wrinkle in Time" begins with a crack of lightning and a boom of thunder -- the "dark and stormy night" that has enraptured young readers for generations.
But on the Julianne Argyros Stage at South Coast Repertory, audiences can see the clouds roll toward them through the darkness, and practically feel the anxiety of Meg as she sits alone in her attic bedroom.
The latest Theatre for Young Audiences production at South Coast Rep, the theatrical production of Madeleine L'Engle's classic "A Wrinkle in Time" has been eight years in the making. It was that long ago that associate artistic director John Glore became intrigued with the story of a pair of children who travel through time to save their father, after his then-9-year-old daughter made a shoe box diorama of a scene in which Meg finds her father imprisoned in a cell by the dreaded "it."
"That got me thinking. It would be great to do 'A Wrinkle in Time' if it was doable," said Glore, who has overseen South Coast's young audience series since 2005.
By doable he meant "a version that is about theater," Glore said. "I didn't want to try to compete with the movies in terms of special effects."
Most of the ideas in Glore's adaptation have seen it through to the final production, which runs through Feb. 27.
The play's 12 characters are performed by only six actors, half of whom play multiple roles. William McGuire first tumbles onto the stage as the eccentric Mrs. Whatsit in a yellow overcoat and matching rain boots; he later transforms into the bad guys, the Man with Red Eyes and Camazotz Man.
Tessa Auberjonois, who starts off as the science-minded mother of Meg and her clairvoyant little brother Charles Wallace, has turns as Mrs. Who, explaining how time "wrinkles" in an artful scene using the folds of her plaid skirt, and as a fantastically costumed Aunt Beast.
"It became a much more elaborate production than I envisioned, but it holds to the spirit of my original intention, which was to do something that engages the audience's imagination to help fill it in," said Glore, who with director Shelley Butler leveraged theater technology to its full potential.
Glore uses the rear wall of the stage for full-screen projections that serve as otherworldly, time-traveling backdrops. There are elaborate echoes and sound effects and props such as remote-controlled moving chairs sliding on and offstage and a glowing, breathing brain. The production wowed the crowd of fourth and fifth graders from nearby schools who saw a recent matinee in previews.
"It's fun because instead of reading the book --" said Mason Tufuga, 12, from Killybrooke Elementary School in Costa Mesa.
"-- you can feel it," classmate Francisco Ruiz completed the thought.
While Glore updated some of the dialect in the 48-year-old story, he made the decision not to move the story to the 21st century because that would have meant including cellphones and other technologies "that felt all wrong for this story," Glore said.
"So, while we haven't overtly set it in the '60s, we certainly wanted to create a world that felt true to the time in which the book was written," he said.
What to keep and what to lose in the 203-page book was no small matter for a classic that has sold 8 million copies since it was published and has never been out of print, and, as Glore heard repeatedly since undertaking the project, is a childhood favorite of many.
Like the best of modern children's literature, "A Wrinkle in Time" endures because it connects so strongly with readers, tapping into their sense of curiosity and adventure with themes that strike at the heart of childhood development -- who they are in relation to their families, their insecurities and their larger roles in the world.
To accommodate school matinees and Actors' Equity rules, South Coast Rep's children's theater productions are supposed to be an hour long. "A Wrinkle in Time" clocks in at one hour, eight minutes.
According to Ian Polonsky, performance rights agent for the estate, "South Coast Repertory is a great theater, and John Glore's track record of adapting children's classics and bringing them to the South Coast Repertory stage made him a great fit." "We're also pleased that this play will likely continue beyond the SCR stage with additional engagements in other cities next season," Polonsky said.
South Coast Rep has extended "A Wrinkle in Time" for an additional week. And theaters in Oregon and Washington, D.C., have committed to stage Glore's adaptation next year.
The Costa Mesa theater's adaptation of the bestselling middle reader series "Junie B. Jones," which opened the 2009-10 Theater for Young Audiences season, was, like Roald Dahl's "James and the Giant Peach" and E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web," a big success. "Parents are still willing to pay for things for their kids even in hard times," Glore said. "They may be less inclined to shell out $50 for a ticket to see a play themselves, but they will pay for their kids to see one, particularly if it's something where they know what is going on or they know their kids are going to enjoy it . . .
"That's the other appeal of 'A Wrinkle in Time,' " he said. "It's multi-generational. There are grandparents out there who know this book who can bring their grandkids to see it."