Theater review: ‘James and the Giant Peach’ by Montford Park Players

FRUITFUL ADVENTURE: Mika Rhianna Parks stars as James in the family-friendly production 'James and the Giant Peach.' Photo courtesy of Montford Park Players

Imagination is central to the story in this delightful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, James and the Giant Peach. The play, under the direction of Art Moore and staged by Montford Park Players, runs through Saturday, Sept. 1.

The play opens with James’ parents (played by Stephanie Nusbaum and Sean Lowman) running away from a rhinoceros. We see only a little bit of the animal’s head, but we hear its fearsome roar. The rest is left to our imaginations. As the parents dash, screaming, around the stage, the rhino finally chases them down, and this is how they meet an oddly humorous demise. This story contains a mixture of darkness and outrageous antics, a balance effectively maintained throughout the performance.

Now an orphan, sweet-natured James (Mika Rhianna Parks) must live with his Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge (Allison Stinson and Grethe Thilly). They treat him cruelly and give him hard work to do, like chopping wood and cleaning floors.

One day, James encounters a stranger who offers him a bag of magic crocodile tongues. James accidentally drops the tongues on the ground at the base of an old peach tree. A calamity, it seems, but instead, an enormous peach begins to grow. When James discovers a tunnel in the tree, he crawls in and finds himself in the peach’s pit, along with a quarrelsome group of bugs. The grasshopper, centipede, earthworm, spider, ladybug and silkworm become his companions as they embark upon a journey.

The introduction of the insect companions stands out as the highlight of the play. The audience gasped with delight as each character displayed its quirky costume. Glow Worm (Dalton Allen) shined with the help of little green lights attached to light and dark brown fabric. Earthworm (Laura Farmer) steals the show. Earthworm’s defining character trait, pessimism, balanced the upbeat, can-do spirit of the rest of the group. This peach contains a wealth of talent, including Old Green Grasshopper (Jefferson Haynes), who plays mandolin to accompany the silly songs of Centipede (Jordan Wright).

For this staging, Moore made set design choices within the constraints of the physical theater space. The cast of characters who accompany James on his ultimate journey over the ocean are, many times, confined to a small space when not on the main stage and are not always easy to see. The top tier of the stage creates the impression that we are watching the group travel high above the ocean in a giant peach. The outdoor setting, complete with a night sky full of twinkling stars that surrounds the characters, remains one of the signature strengths of the amphitheater.

A child’s fantasy world can be frightening. Dahl’s book conveys menace, along with whimsy and fun. We hope these characters, who have embarked upon a dangerous voyage, will receive a warm welcome in their new country. Adults and children will find themselves reading the play on many levels. It reminds us that sometimes we need both escape and escapism.

WHAT: James and the Giant Peach by Montford Park Players
WHERE: Hazel Robinson Amphitheater, 92 Gay St., montfordparkplayers.org
WHEN: Through Saturday, Sept. 1. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Free to attend, donations accepted. Chair rentals available for $2

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About Patricia Furnish
Patricia Furnish is a North Carolina native who loves history, Spanish, and the visual arts. She is also a documentary filmmaker. Follow me @drpatriqua

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