The first volume of The Boxcar Children series—a fairly realistic tale of four children orphaned during the Depression, fending for themselves until reconciled with their rich, paternal grandfather—was published in 1924, but didn’t achieve true popularity until it was reissued in a revised version in 1942. After that, its author, Gertrude Chandler Warner, took off on a different track, adding 18 more stories about the family in the mystery-adventure mode. These tales proved so successful with young readers that the publisher, some years after the author’s passing, hired other writers to update the setting to the present, and has introduced another 104 volumes to date.
Inevitably, someone decided that the next stop was the stage, and the adaptation was entrusted to an experienced playwright, Barbara Field. Though Ms. Field claims to have based her play on the series, she seems only to have slightly rejiggered the original story. This version has been produced repeatedly since its debut at the Seattle Children’s Theater in 1999, but don’t attend in hopes of an exciting mystery. At best, the adaptation is serviceable.
As the Asheville Community Theatre production begins, book-besotted adolescent Henry (Bryce Lotz), his responsible sister Jesse (Jean Louise Webb) and their younger siblings Violet (Sarah Plaut) and Benny (Sam Bible-Sullivan), have watched their parents drown in an attempt to save the children from an accident. The authorities, in seeking a home for the orphans, decide to split them up, declaring Benny slow and in need of special care. The children, desperate to stay together, flee, and eventually find their way to a boxcar, where they set up housekeeping.
Meantime, the heartsick social worker Sarah Calder (Kristin Whitbeck) works fruitlessly with Officer Banning (Craig Lotz) to find the children, and an ever-increasing reward is offered in newspapers nationwide by an anonymous source. Young Henry, in town to search for food, encounters Dr. Sam Truman (Tim Plaut), who hires the youth for odd jobs, and strikes up a friendship, though Henry conceals his identity.
Eventually, Violet becomes terribly ill, and the children are forced to seek the doctor’s aid. Sarah Calder has tracked down the children’s grandfather, Mr. Alden (Michael Lilly), through the newspaper ads he placed, and though Alden’s a cantankerous fellow with no real feel for children…well, all ends for the best.
The play places a heavy burden on its young leads. Bryce Lotz and Jesse Louise Webb do well by their roles, but the standouts here are Sarah Plaut and Sam Bible-Sullivan, in part because they’ve got the funniest lines which they approach with surprising flair. The adults perform well, too, especially Kristin Whitbeck as Sarah Calder and Tim Plaut as Dr. Truman, both of whom bring real feeling to their roles; Scott Cameron (the drifter, Cookie) and Joyce Wood (the doctor’s mother, Mrs. Truman), who handle the comedy and emotion of their brief appearances with aplomb; and Michael Lilly as Mr. Alden, whose willful unpleasantness and subsequent transformation are both handled believably.
Special mention should be made of the design team and, particularly, the complex set, which includes a turntable to convey how completely the children get lost in the woods. Director Lori Beland Hilliard negotiates the complications of working with the set and with a large cast of amateurs gracefully.
The Boxcar Children, by Barbara Field, based on the books of Gertrude Chandler Warner. Directed by Lori Beland Hilliard. Scenic design by Jack Lindsay. Lighting design by Jason Williams. Costume design by Renee Handley. Property design by McRae Hilliard. Technical director: Matt Kaufman. Stage manager: LaNita Cloninger. With Bryce Lotz (Henry), Jean Louise Webb (Jess), Sam Bible-Sullivan (Benny), Sarah Plaut (Violet), Sheila O’Conner (Mrs. Albert), Kristin Whitbeck (Sarah Calder), Craig Lotz (Officer Banning), Jen Pyne (Baker’s Wife), Scott Cameron (Cookie), Forrest Beaudet (Big Mike), Caleb Lotz (The Kid), Tim Plaut (Dr. Sam Truman), Joyce Wood (Mrs. Truman), and Michael Lilly (Mr. Alden). More at ashevilletheatre.org.