by Steve Odenthal
I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek at Anne of Green Gables which opened tonight, January 18th, 2019 at the Heritage Community Theatre. With the curtain rising at 7:30 PM on Friday, Saturday and Monday nights through March 9th, this show will transport you to a simpler and warmer time when plain-speaking was a virtue, and a vivid imagination was a rarity. This stage play, adapted from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic novel, by Alice Chadwicke subtly combines all the charm of an adolescent fish out of water story with a rigid and rural country setting and simply delights under the direction of Mahonri Stewart in his first production at HCT.
For those unfamiliar with the story and I was counted among that number-Anne of Green Gables has at its core an honest young girl, Anne Shirley (Makenzie Zundel), who is given to flights of fancy and storytelling sent from an orphanage to a homestead in need of a child to attend to a boy’s chores on the farm. A gentle soul by the name of Matthew Cuthbert (Thomas Spencer) and his strait-laced sister, the unmarried Marilla Cutberth (Janine Tueller Mickelson) are in for a surprise and test in rearing the young Anne whose spirit, as should be in any good heroine, cannot easily be tamed. This trio, Anne, with eyes darting with excitement and intrigue all around, Matthew, whose quiet indecision somehow maneuvers his unspoken decision to become the path taken; and Marilla whose sense of right and proper teamed with dogged determination, give their all to the performance. As the Cuthbert dynamic takes Anne into their household, much of Anne countenance seeps slowly into Matthew and Marilla. Matthew is a push-over, or so we think, but the battle of wills between Marilla and Anne is surprisingly touching as it enfolds us in witty one-liners and genuine caring dialogue from both sides-just expressed with contrasting tones by the two women.
Under Stewart’s hand we see this trio of characters excel and in this normally dialogue-driven production, the director introduces small vignettes to help the audience envision the action. They help tremendously in keeping the story fresh and well-paced as the scene within a scene enhances our understanding and love for Anne and her cohorts. We see Anne’s interaction with her school chums at key times and events, such as when the two schoolboys played by Grant Christensen (Gilbert Blythe), and Joshua Adams (Moody Spurgeon) square off each wishing for a victory to impress young Anne. Christensen and Adams, who are double cast in each other’s roles, show the appropriate determination and hometown grit to win the day, but this side-story only adds to the Anne Shirley mystique which reaches out and grabs us from the start.
Traditionally, Anne of Green Gables is considered a quiet story. That’s not to say that any of the sparks are missing. No, quite to the contrary, the pacing of the dialogue (quick and even giddy for Anne and her friends versus slow, determined and certain for the older generations-except for Matthew, he is a different case entirely) form a natural barrier and at times a bridge between generations. For a story like this to succeed, we must buy into each of the characters and be able to sit back and let their relationships wash over us. No one in the cast seeks to make their character bigger than life, nor a larger piece of the puzzle than was originally intended by the author. Rebekah Sorenson (Diana Barry), Amanda Mayne (Mrs Barry), Sheri Riser (Rachel Lynde), Sydney Neslen (Josie Pye), Ashlee Allred (Florence Remsen), and Hannah Harding (Minnie Stearn/Mrs Allan) all show well but not obtrusively in this production and move the story along quickly.
This production enjoys a double cast in the role of Anne Shirley (Cheigny Merkley/Makenzie Zundel). Zundel was on for the performance I attended and she was very good. She expressed so much with her facials and eyes that I was totally impressed. We are looking forward to another performance to catch the other side of the cast, as Cheigny Merkley is no stranger to this stage. I especially liked the contrast of locals and their effect on Marilla as Mayne brought a country-worn smile to her role of devoted, determined mother to Anne’s best friend Diana, contrasted by the neighborhood gossip/power mistress/home invader played by Sheri Riser. These two, at least for me, represented the best and worst shoulder imps for Marilla as they warred to influence Matthew’s sister’s treatment of young Anne. Spoiler alert – the right influence wins. But chances are you knew that if you have read this far. You may have loved Anne Shirley for quite a while now, and I am not telling you anything new.
If you love this story, bring a friend-you won’t be disappointed. If, by chance, there is someone in your life who has never dipped into the waters of Green Gables, take him by the hand and let him see this show. Make it a dinner and a date night out and let him discover this warm and witty story for himself, as I did. I’m not saying that he will love it as much as I did, but I’m not saying he won’t. (Here is where the dinner before-hand comes in-at least he will be well-fed.) But, I do know that this show made me realize that my oath as a 4th grader to never read Anne of Green Gables because of an older sister that incessantly prattled on about it, may have been a bit hasty. The story is insightful and witty and probably would have stood me in good stead while raising a bit of Anne in each of my two daughters. This story and staging is a family-pleasing portrayal of a simpler time and place. You will enjoy it.
Be sure to use the buy one-get one promo code BOGO for opening weekend!
Director Mahonri Stewart
Set Tevin Coburn, Mahonri Stewart
Costumes Samantha Merkley, Briana Taylor
Props Becca Genther
Stage Mgr Tevin Coburn