Saturday, December 5, 2015

"A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas" at Lyric Arts

I'm a little bit obsessed with all things Little House on the Prairie, and I'm not ashamed to admit it! The TV show started the year after I was born, and I don't remember a time when I didn't watch it and love it. When I was old enough to read, the Little House books were a favorite, although I soon discovered just how different the TV and book worlds are. I've re-read them as an adult, along with several other books about Laura Ingalls Wilder, most recently the excellent Prairie Girl: An Annotated Autobiography. And when I took a road trip across South Dakota a few years ago, I made sure to stop in De Smet, and Walnut Grove on the way back into Minnesota. On the live performance front, I loved the Guthrie's 2008 musical adaptation of Little House on the Prairie (starring Melissa Gilbert!), and I even saw Alison Arngrim's comedy performance of her funny and touching memoir Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. So it's obvious I will consume Laura Ingalls Wilders' writings in any form I can, and I couldn't resist Lyric Arts' "Mainly for Kids" production of A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas. Playwright Laurie Brooks has turned a few pages in Laura's original memoir that never made it into her children's series, about their time spent in Burr Oak, Iowa, into a sweet little 65-minute play in keeping with the Little House theme of family and frontier life.

The play opens as the Ingalls family buries baby Freddie and climbs into their wagon for the trip to Burr Oak, where they help friends from Walnut Grove at their hotel. The Ingalls' only stayed here two years. I re-read the section from Prairie Girl this morning, and the play takes many elements from the memoir and expands and dramatizes them. There's Ma's (Jennifer Gruber) grief and fatigue, Ma and Pa's (Christopher J. Devan) busyness and distraction, the mean boy Johnny (Logan Schuneman) who won't let the Ingalls girls use his sled, and the doctor's wife Mrs. Starr (Denise Martineau) who wants to adopt Laura. The three girls are just as we know them - the good and responsible Mary (Olivia Denninger); Laura, spunky and mischievous, but well-meaning (Carley Rose Clover); and the adorably precocious Carrie (Ella Sontowski). Just as in Laura's stories, the kids are the main focus of the story, and all four of the child actors are enthusiastic, engaged, and fun to watch. It's a sweet little story* in which Laura learns lessons of love, friendship, and family.

Last Sunday I saw Lyric Arts other show, Christmas in the Airwaves, and wondered how they'd turn a 1940s radio station into the late 19th Century frontier. I'm still not sure how, but all traces of the studio are gone, and in its place is the wide frontier. On the painted backdrop, the road cuts through the prairie and fades into the horizon. All of the set pieces are cleverly arranged to form a wagon, and then unpacked to create the kitchen, bedroom, and sitting room sets, and packed back up at the end of the play as the Ingalls move on in their constant quest to move West. (Scenic design by Jane Ryan, who also designed Christmas in the Airwaves.)

Part of the reason I'm so obsessed with Little House on the Prairie is that it's such a Midwestern, such a Minnesotan, story. Laura's story is actually not a unique or special story; my ancestors were 19th Century pioneers in Minnesota too. But the difference is, my ancestors didn't write their story down. Laura did, and in doing so she captured not just her history, but my history, this region's history. A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas brings a lesser known piece of Laura's history to life, one that fits well in the Little House universe (continuing on Saturdays through December 19, with weekday matinees offered to school groups).

*There's one exception to this sweet little story. I don't find it charming when a little boy, however cute, says "females make men crazy" as an excuse for why a man tried to shoot his wife, effectively blaming the woman for making her husband shoot her. Not a lesson we should be teaching our children, and I'm disappointed that the audience laughed at this line.