By the time they have children of an age to see Theaterworks USA’s latest production, parents will likely have forgotten an important aspect of the story of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” one that takes a long time to forget: Margery Williams’ 40-page book about a stuffed rabbit who becomes real is perhaps the saddest story ever committed to paper and read to children, a competition that includes “Sounder,” “Old Yeller,” and “Where the Red Fern Grows” (or as a friend of mine used to call them, the Dead Puppy Trilogy).
But beware. “The Velveteen Rabbit” is not suitable for all adults. Children’s guidance is suggested.
This is thanks in large part to guileless performances from Jim Stanek, John Curcuru, and Kristin Parker, who play all of the parts in the show. Parker in particular is adorable as the titular rabbit, and Kevin Del Aguila’s deceptively simple direction and adaptation of the difficult source material never brooks doubt or uncertainty.
Children’s theater is fun for the contributions from its undersized audience at least as much as it is for the work of the artists onstage. (Overheard at the performance reviewed: “My intestines are filled with squishy stuff.”) So whenever kids seem to grasp the deeper implications of the show, it’s worth mentioning. During the play, the toy box briefly becomes a bonfire on which all of the toys and clothes belonging to the unnamed boy (Stanek) are thrown after his bout with scarlet fever. We hear the rabbit’s thoughts as he comes closer and closer to the fire that's meant to destroy him; he remembers his pleasant days with the boy, as a prop representing each outing is incinerated in turn. At the performance reviewed, one girl turned and asked, “Are they going to throw the rabbit on the fire?”
“Yes,” whispered her mother.
“Of what use was it to be loved and lose one’s beauty and become real if it all ended like this?” asked the rabbit at the same time. Good questions all around.
Del Aguila retains much of the text from the original book, which is at odds slightly with gentle attempts to bring contemporary kids into the story. But, as with so much children’s literature, it’s the experiences of the characters more than the ways of the world that young readers and viewers will understand.
Those experiences are shared generously by the cast, and the let’s-pretend mechanics of Del Aguila's staging seems familiar to most of the audience. At one point, Curcuru hangs his coat on a hat stand, puts his arm through one sleeve, and proceeds to perform a whole scene as both the boy’s nanny and the doctor treating her charge for scarlet fever; Stanek provides the offstage voice of the doctor, so that the characters are distinct. It’s such a simple yet effective conceit, and everyone watching appears to understand what’s happening, but the play’s message—overlaid on Williams’ much harder ideas about the cost of love—seems to be that imaginations need exercise. Ultimately, most of the special effects in “The Velveteen Rabbit” take place in the minds of the audience, and that personalization helps everyone, large and small, to internalize the show’s difficult lessons.
Presented by Daryl Roth and Theatreworks USA at the DR2 Theater, 103 E. 15th St., NYC. Nov. 16–Jan. 27. 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com.
Critic’s Score: A-