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'Wrinkle in Time' captures essence of beloved novel

There may have been mixed emotions when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced that veteran director Tracy Young was adapting Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" for the stage. The award-winning science fiction fantasy novel is a beloved classic.

The world premiere production that opened on Easter Sunday in the festival's Bowmer Theatre should put any concerns to rest. Young's adaptation and staging captures all the complexity and the wonder of L'Engle's 1962 novel while creating a satisfying piece of theater that stands on its own.

In L'Engle's novel, three children travel through time and space to other planets in search of their missing father. The author's descriptions of these worlds and their inhabitants are meticulously detailed in the book, of course, but visualization has to come from the imagination of the reader. In adapting the novel to the stage, Young and scenic designer Christopher Acebo wisely chose "less is more," with minimal sets and scenery — though hardly minimal special effects — and used readings of L'Engle's actual narration to be the backbone of the action.

Young's adaptation begins before the play's curtain, as various bits of stage business and scenery establish that this is the early '60s, the time of the Cold War, a palpable nuclear threat and the beginnings of our modern-day technology.

The play, true to the novel, opens with the line, "It was a dark and stormy night." Fourteen-year-old Meg Murry can't sleep. She obsesses about being a misfit, feeling ugly, stupid and lonely. Her father, a physicist working for the government, has disappeared. Her mother, also a scientist, is bravely holding the family together — Meg, younger twin boys and the youngest, Charles Wallace, a remarkably precocious and empathetic 5-year-old.

The appearance of a new, mysterious neighbor, Mrs. Whatsit, who casually refers to a "tesseract" — the secret project their father was working on when he disappeared — starts Meg, Charles Wallace and a teenage neighbor, Calvin O'Keefe, on a fantastical, universe-hopping odyssey. Guided by Mrs. Whatsit and her equally extra-terrestrial companions, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, they use the "tesseract"— the fifth dimension that dramatically compresses time and space, a wrinkle in time — to find Meg's father and conquer the evil power holding him in thrall.

Alejandra Escalante as Meg, Sara Bruner as Charles Wallace and Joe Wegner as Calvin maintain the innocence and the spontaneity of the three child protagonists so consistently that you have to remind yourself that they are actually adult actors.

L'Engle's descriptions of the other characters, though fanciful and slyly humorous, are never condescending. Young's conceptualization, whether through dialogue or costume, stays true to the source. Mrs. Murray (Kate Hurster) and Mr. Murray (Dan Donohue) are nuanced rather than stereotypical parents. The rest of the cast — Judith-Marie Bergan (Mrs. Whatsit), K.T. Vogt (Mrs. Who at the opening performance), Daniel T. Parker (as Aunt Beast, dressed up as a sort of anemone with waving tentacles), Kate Mulligan (the Happy Medium) and U. Jonathan Toppo (as the dog) — are all delightful.

Costumes by Alex Jaeger, lighting by Robert Wierzel — complete with fantasy '60s lamps — puppets by Lynn Jeffries, video designs by Shawn Sagady and original music by Paul James Prendergast recreate L'Engle's interstellar worlds without being obvious.

"A Wrinkle in Time" has always prompted intense reactions from both its fans and detractors. It is an allegory of good versus evil, the power of love and the courage to be different. At the time of its publication — pre-"Star Wars" and pre-Harry Potter — the book's message was deemed either too religious or too secular.

"A Wrinkle in Time" is a reminder of a simpler time but also a time fraught with more palpable peril, but its lessons are universal and timeless — and beautifully brought to life on the Bowmer's stage. It continues through Nov. 1.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

Calvin (Joe Wegner), Charles Wallace (Sara Bruner) and Meg (Alejandra Escalante) time-travel to Camazotz and encounter the Man with Red Eyes in “A Wrinkle in Time” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. - OSF photo by Jenny Graham