Stage One Family Theatre’s production of Joseph Robinette’s stage adaptation of E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web” is now open at the Kentucky Center. This year is the 60th anniversary of “Charlotte’s Web” winning the Newbery Honor award for excellence in children’s literature. White’s novel about a “radiant” pig and his barnyard friends remains one of the best-selling children’s books of all time.
“Charlotte’s Web” is a fun and heartfelt play about talking animals, but its themes are deep – the inevitability of death runs through the story.
“This is a lot of kids’ first encounter with those big themes and those big questions,” says director Mike Brooks. “Outside of the context of, say, the death of a family member, a lot of kids won’t have experienced or thought about it in that way.”
From the second Wilbur (Seth Lieber), the runt of the piglet litter, is born, his life is in danger, and only friendship can save him. First Fern (Kylie McGuffey/Madelyn Steuer), the farmer’s daughter, raises him by hand. Then when her uncle Homer Zuckerman (Jon Huffman) buys him to fatten for slaughter, a kindly spider named Charlotte creates a miracle, writing in her web above his stall, turning Wilbur into a valuable media and tourist commodity.
Julie Dingman Evans plays Charlotte the spider, who transforms over the course of the brief show, both physically and through Shana Lincoln’s clever costumes, from a spry young creature to an old, tired woman. And although pigs live longer than spiders, Wilbur, too, is transformed, from a pink new piglet to a well-dressed, confident, newly-wise young man.
“They’re such brief lives, and that’s something we try to convey in the production. When we meet them, both Charlotte and Wilbur are very young, and they’re vital and maybe a little naïve, and they throw themselves into friendship,” says Brooks.
“It epitomizes what we do at Stage One. It’s not just an entertainment for kids,” he adds. “Here you have E.B. White, who is one of America’s preeminent men of letters. He wrote the book on writing, pretty much literally, and was a big part of turning The New Yorker into one of our grandest literary traditions and institutions. You have a guy with real chops here who has told a beautiful and heartfelt and very personal story that I think reaches across age levels and demographics.”
White didn’t just write about animals, he was an avowed farmer who considered writing his second vocation. His wry and moving 1948 essay “Death of a Pig” provides the emotional framework for what has become one of the most enduring children’s texts of modern time:
The scheme of buying a spring pig in blossom time, feeding it through summer and fall, and butchering it when the solid cold weather arrives, is a familiar scheme to me and follows an antique pattern. It is a tragedy enacted on most farms with perfect fidelity to the original script. The murder, being premeditated, is in the first degree but is quick and skillful, and the smoked bacon and ham provide a ceremonial ending whose fitness is seldom questioned.
Once in a while something slips – one of the actors goes up in his lines and the whole performance stumbles and halts.
While she does manage to prolong Wilbur’s life, Charlotte can’t save her own, but she does live on through her own spiderlings, laid in an egg sack rescued by churlish rat Templeton (Doug Sorenson, whose performance will especially delight adult chaperones). Along with the inevitability of death, the story also explores impermanence in an age-appropriate manner — that throughout going new places, making and losing friends, and gaining and losing family members, life goes on. The Goose (Cindy Smith) and Gander (Terry Schwab) hatch another batch of goslings; Fern spends less time with the animals after discovering boys.
“That is one of the great themes of this story, that in the kindness we can show to others and the friendship and the depth of relationships we can have with those we care, we can continue to live on in their hearts,” says Brooks.
While most performances are held during the day for school groups, two weekends of public performances are planned for May 11 and 18, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. The production is aimed at children in kindergarten through the third grade.