Lost in space

Hearing that North Carolina Stage Company’s late-summer run of the rock opera Hedwig and The Angry Inch was very impressive, I anticipated memorable things from the company’s current production, A Wrinkle in Time.

But I emerged from a second-weekend performance of Wrinkle largely unmoved.

The play, based on Madeleine L’Engle’s children’s novel of the same name, begins with a late-night gathering in the Murry kitchen. Meg (Julia Cunningham), an awkward and moody high school freshman; Charles Wallace (Lucas Gregg), her precocious and super-intuitive younger brother; and their mother (Mary McAvoy), who’s prone to wearing lab coats, are sharing a pot of hot chocolate as they wait for a nasty rainstorm to pass.

The trio is joined by Mrs. Whatsit (Patricia Snoyer), a mysterious new neighbor — actually a spirit in human disguise — with a passion for layered pink garments and a tendency toward petty theft, who eats a sandwich, takes off her sneakers and finally departs with a cryptic message for Mrs. Murry: “There is such a thing as a tesseract.”

This, we learn, relates to the mysterious disappearance of Mr. Murry (Willie Repoley) during a secret government experiment some years before; he was developing a way for humans to mentally “wrinkle” the dimension between time and space, thus enjoying intergalactic travel. Charles Wallace and Meg are joined by Calvin (Todd Weakley), a friendly basketball player from Meg’s school, and the three are transported through space by Mrs. Whatsit via this wrinkling (she calls it “tessering”) to rescue Mr. Murry from a fearsome, abstract, world-conquering “Black Thing.”

Although the vast majority of the audience were adults at the Sunday-evening audience I attended, the story and performance offered little for viewers above age 11, particularly in light of the $15 (children get in for $8) admission fee.

A Wrinkle in Time, winner of the 1963 Newbery Medal, is a compelling, original young-adult novel that deals with a variety of themes — family, adolescence, morality, science, religion and social standing. Unfortunately, not all of these could be comfortably condensed into the theater company’s 75-minute production; and had I not been familiar with the book, I doubt I would have understood what was going on.

I was, apparently, not alone. As the lights came up, a playgoer in front of me turned to her companion and asked, “What was that all about?”

However, the average third-grader should be fascinated by the mysterious characters, sci-fi metaphysics and, most of all, the giant, undulating, tyrannical brain — the monstrous “It” of the novel — which the children must engage in psychic battle in order to win their way home again. This same complexity and broad subject matter — which likely made Wrinkle a challenge to stage — provides plenty of material for conversations with kids on the ride home from the theater.

L’Engle’s vision of a totalitarian society and her warnings about conformity, fear and obedience — something of a children’s version of George Orwell’s or Ayn Rand’s dystopias — have much for kids to relate in their own complex social spheres, not to mention their growing awareness of the larger world. (I do think the scriptwriter could have found some term other than “Black Thing” for the all-white cast to call the planet-conquering evil force. I kept hoping that a Fear of a Black Planet reference might pop up in one of the character’s lines, but no such luck.)

Younger viewers may also warm to Meg and Calvin’s gentle romance, which provides a pleasant contrast to standard pop-culture visions of adolescent male/female interactions that often revolve around social climbing, fashion, compromise and unhealthy obsessions. Meg, intellectually gifted but academically frustrated, and Calvin, the sensitive basketball star, are both likable characters with strengths and weaknesses that have refreshingly little in common with those of Hollywood’s stock one-dimensional nerds and jocks.

Cunningham’s performance was the most convincing; I instantly recognized girls I grew up with in her interpretation of Meg — young women far too smart and emotionally driven to be content in the cookie-cutter factory of mainstream education. Meg is much too aware of (and reactive to) her own strong personality to ever be comfortable in Darwinistic adolescent power-games.

In the end, the North Carolina Stage Company’s A Wrinkle in Time isn’t be a bad way to introduce a kid to live theater. Showing a child that real people can create art, that drama doesn’t just happen on a screen (just as music isn’t confined to CDs or pictures to manufactured comic books) might just inspire the DIY impulse that liberates a young person from passive commercial-entertainment consumption — and the earlier that happens in a child’s life, the better.

But childless adults better wait till the theater company’s Hamlet this spring.

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