Dandelion Wine

Michael Nagrant / 12.31.07

Before “Stand By Me”, the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s novella “The Body”, there was Ray Bradbury’s novel and play “Dandelion Wine”, a similar, but more aw, shucks rendering of the promise of summer, the companionship of friends, and how a bit of darkness can change a boy into a man.

Greentown, Illinois, a Mayberry-esque city of front porch community gatherings, firefly-fueled lanterns, and slow swooning dates at the local ice-cream parlor, modeled on Bradbury’s real boyhood home of Waukegan, serves as the fictional backdrop for Dandelion Wine.

At the center of this drama, is Douglas Spaulding (played by Mike Viruet), age 12, “a maker of magic and wizard of wizards”, who as he’s just discovering the joys of life in the fresh perfume of swaying grass and the sunny shoots of spurting dandelions, encounters the darkness of death and the fading of childhood friendships.

Unfortunately, Viruet, a high school senior in real life, plays Spaulding as a high school kid’s fantasy of a sixth grader with a constant hop-skipping across the stage, and boisterous shouts of “gosh” and “gee”. This works ok when Spaulding’s breathing in the full bloom of summer and recognizing for the first time that he’s alive, but contrasted with the solemn Bubba Weiler who plays Doug’s brother Tom Spaulding, it comes across as naïve when the darkness of the play strikes.

Bradbury’s original theatrical script was three hours long, while Children’s Theatre Director Eric Rosen edited this version of the play down to 75-minutes. Anyone who’s read the novel will miss Bradbury’s languorous descriptive passages full of magical detail. These details have been replaced in the play with breathless pacing and a shallow investigation of pivotal themes.

There’s still some magic in the plays more fantastical elements. The curmudgeonly Colonel Freeleigh (Leonard Kraft) acts as a pseudo-time machine as he tells stories to the Spaulding brothers and their friend John Huff (Anthony Sullivan). The video sequences that backdrop Freeleigh’s stories transform the sawdust shingles of the Spaulding house set into a pyrotechnic visual extravaganza. The fortune telling Tarot Witch, a creation of town tinkerer Leo Auffman (John Steven Crowley) who’s now working on a happiness machine, is a clever and delightful construction, part machine, part actor (Jacqueline Williams), and will be familiar to anyone who remembers Zoltar Speaks from the Tom Hank’s movie Big.

The children’s theatre is aiming towards “’tweens”, and maybe I’m a jaded older cynic, but it’s hard to imagine a generation weaned on their own modern happiness machines, X-box 360’s loaded up with Grand Theft Auto, will be engaged in a play of such squeaky goodness.

This article first appeared on centerstagechicago.com