note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Sheila Barth
Making its East Coast premiere at Stoneham Theatre after achieving success at its debut at the House Theatre of Chicago, Nathan Allen’s unique play, “The Sparrow,” is drawing mixed reviews - mostly positive - not for its plot or character development, but for its bells, whistles, and ability to create a stunning theatrical experience.
Last Sunday afternoon, the day after Halloween, the sparse audience delivered an appreciative standing ovation to this mostly local cast and crew directed by Allen, who calls this play “a little bit superhero and a little bit fairytale,” but it’s more, much more. He also calls it a “spectacle of movement and objects,” but it’s even more than that. It’s an amalgam of fantasy and suspense, with stirring music, lively choreography --- no, it isn’t a musical --- and an eye-popping set-up of sound, lights, realistic stage effects, and audience interaction. Conversely, ridiculously understated stage props, such as chairs representing moving trains, a classroom, etc., and a small dollhouse with bedroom furniture that actors carry on and off stage to change the scene are surprisingly effective. Also, the cast carries photos of houses to represent where they live instead of changing scenic backdrops at times.
“There’s a beautiful score and a lot of movement used to create imaginative space,” Allen continues. “In one moment, you’ll be in a classroom and then suddenly you’ll be on a train as it’s crashing. In a movie, this is normal, but on stage, we don’t often see this fluidity of scale and setting, ‘The Sparrow’ is a very cinematic piece.” Thanks to Mark Lanks’ light design, Michael Griggs’ sound designs, from thunderous crashes to telekinetic events and more, paired with Kevin O’Donnell’s dramatic music and Tommy Rapley’s exuberant, yet balletic choreography, Allen’s production works here.
“The Sparrow” also boasts a young, exuberant cast. Although there are few primary roles, the rest of the cast can’t exactly be termed the ensemble - they’re a composite. Before the play opens, the cast, dressed like the audience, mingle among us, lining the aisles, talking excitedly with each other, while pointing and waving to others who are seated. Many are holding framed photos of children. We don’t realize that we’ve been swept into the opening scene, in which a special Town Meeting is occurring, to discuss the return of an orphaned teenager whom advisers requested be allowed to finish her high school career in her hometown. These heartfelt folks are kindly, hinting that the girl, Emily Book, 17, the sole survivor of her second grade class that perished in a horrific crash between their school bus and a train 10 years ago, should be supported. Since that fateful day, Emily was sent to a parochial residential school. However, her grandmother died, leaving her alone, nobody to live with. We also learn Emily has developed some amazing, superhuman abilities, such as flying, healing, preventing, and predicting. The McCutchins, whose daughter Sara perished in the crash, agree to take Emily into their home, and thus begins a two-hour allegory that assails our senses, sensibiity, and souls.
I won’t reveal the plot with its twists, turns, and jarring revelations. That would take the fun out of seeing this play. However, Dillan Arrick is fine as introspective, introvertive, slump-shouldered Emily, who constantly wears black and the same braids and glasses she had as a second-grader. Jonathan Popp as rah-rah teacher-adviser Dan Christopher is outstanding, and Steve Gagliastro in several roles, Elizabeth Erwin as friendly cheerleader, student leader and scholar Jenny McGrath, Winthrop’s own star, Jaime Slatt in several roles, and the rest of the cast are all noteworthy.
Although Halloween is over, “The Sparrow” is like a Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock thriller, gently leading us to one surprise after another, aided by a large screen (projection design by Lucas Merino) and realistic stage effects that keep us entranced throughout.
Be sure to check out the photographic exhibit, “Superheroes,” featuring nine invited photographers, at the Atelier Gallery, located in the small room next to the theater lobby.
BOX INFO:Two-act drama, conceived and directed by Nathan Allen, co-written with Chris Mathews and Jake Minton, starring Dillan Arrick, with Winthrop’s Jaime Slatt and Lynnfield’s Michael Ryan Buckley in the ensemble, appearing at the Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main St., Stoneham, now through November 8. Tickets range $44 for premium seating and $38 for general admission; students, advance tickets, $20; student rush, $10. Senioor discount also. For more information and performances, call 781-279-2200 or visit stonehamtheatre.org.