This Old House

 

The Coterie’s loyalty to Laura Ingalls Wilder has, for six years running, kept the theater’s December garden lush and fertile. But with the newest installment in the Little House on the Prairie series — an adaptation of Little House by the Shores of Silver Lake by Philip blue owl Hooser — the bloom is beginning to leave the rose.

For this world premiere, the focus is on the eldest daughter, Mary (Abbi Miller), who awakens one morning with the dreadful realization that she is quickly losing her sight. (Though her family makes a point of telling her it is already a bright, sunny day, outside the window is utter blackness — a display not of eerie symbolism but technical neglect.) Sister Laura (the twinkly Margaret “Margo” May) serves as Mary’s eyes, and the family goes out of its way to avoid casual use of the word “see” (as in “It’s good to see you”). They cringe at hearing this and phrases such as “a sight for sore eyes” almost more than you will.

One hardship begets another when the family picks up stakes and moves east so Pa Ingalls (Stuart Rider) can take a job with the railroad. This at least allows Pa a fiery confrontation with a coworker (Charles Fugate) that shakes the play out of its torpor. He builds a house that’s identical to the one on the prairie — another design convenience — and everyone has the simple, homespun Christmas that seems to be the climax of every Coterie Little House production.

Hooser, who has written salty plays such as Dottie: A Story of Dorothy Parker and contributed to a host of Late Night Theatre shows, has unfortunately peppered this work with lines like “It’s always darkest before the dawn”; “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”; and “Curiosity killed the cat.” Such cliches advance the story, one supposes, but choke the show’s creative momentum. The last gasp may be the kindly minister’s comforting words to Ma Ingalls (Cheryl Weaver): “Mary’s a lesson to us all.”

Vaughn Schultz and Paige Ahlenius are cocredited with set and scenic design, and they do show some flair in a couple of instances. The Ingalls’ covered wagon comes to life with flexible rods looped over the family’s dining room table to form the wagon’s skeleton; for a while, the rods weave to and fro as if the wagon were moving. And a pretty backdrop flecked with shafts of blowing wheat almost lets you hear the Midwestern wind.

But these grace notes don’t disguise the production’s anemic pallor. Director Sidonie Garrett stages Mary’s stumbling and fumbling to look just like that of every Helen Keller in every production of The Miracle Worker. Maybe there’s no other way to have a sighted actor play a blind character, but if anybody could have figured out how to do it, Garrett should have been the one. The actors playing the Ingalls family are capable; Fugate is, in a brief scene, mean and scary.

But the two actors splitting five roles, Jennifer Svedja and Martin D. Chisolm, represent what is ultimately at fault. They play a teacher, an aunt, a neighbor, a Native American and a minister by changing wigs and costumes but nothing about their demeanor. It is hard to get involved in the nuances of a story when the production is so lax about the larger details.

Over a barrel: Actor Heidi Gutknecht, currently in Nuncrackers at American Heartland Theatre, is no stranger to the good fight. Her annual February AIDS benefit, for example, brings together local performers and amateur artists for a classy evening of music and art. So it’s no surprise that she is the primary force behind a food drive for Harvesters that will take place in the lobbies of several area theaters, including the Unicorn, Quality Hill Playhouse and the New Theatre Restaurant.

“The seed was really planted for this by Jeanne Beechwood at Martin City Melodrama,” Gutknecht says. “She had a permanent Harvesters barrel there. After September 11, when everyone was feeling stunned and paralyzed, it helped me to do something proactive, positive and peaceful.”

Gutknecht is asking Kansas Citians who will be attending A Christmas Carol at the Missouri Rep or Fuddy Meers or The Santaland Diaries at the Unicorn to bring a box or can of nonperishable food. “I mean, almost everyone has an extra can of green beans around,” she says. “As a starving-actor type, I have had my share of eating Ramen noodles until the next paycheck comes along.”

Though the drive was provoked by the helplessness Gutknecht felt on one terrible day, she hopes the effort will be self-perpetuating. “It’s a new concept this year, but I’d love to make it a yearly event.”

Categories: A&E, Stage