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Review: ‘Make Believe’ Has a Cast of Children, but No Fairy Tales

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

HARTFORD — Ghosts arrive early in the cavernous playroom, flitting back and forth among the toys. Draped in sheets with eyeholes, these scampering spirits are the size of trick-or-treaters — children, that is — and when they make their first appearance the audience is still settling in.

Get used to the haunting. Bess Wohl’s “Make Believe,” a cartoon-colored experiment of a play here at Hartford Stage, is more spectral than it looks. Set in a cheery attic with double windows wide enough for a visit from Peter Pan, it’s a pensive comedy performed, in its first half, entirely by children — which is not, as it turns out, nearly as effective as Ms. Wohl means it to be.

Yet this beautifully constructed play — a regret-tinged examination of family and trauma and sibling connections that maybe, back in those formative years, were not forged solidly enough — is emphatically for adults.

It is sometime in the 1980s as the play begins. The pigtailed 8-year-old Addie (Alexa Skye Swinton) is already in the playroom when her older siblings trickle in: first the studious 10-year-old Kate (Sloane Wolfe), then the 9-year-old Chris (Roman Malenda), piqued that their mother hasn’t left him a snack. A bully seeking a target for his aggression, he grabs Addie’s Cabbage Patch doll.

“Die, baby!” he yells as his little sister screams for him to stop. “Die, die, die!”

Not exactly the Darling children of “Peter Pan,” are they. Then again, Ms. Wohl — whose best-known play, the quiet, piercing ensemble piece “Small Mouth Sounds,” also tested theatrical conventions — isn’t interested in letting nostalgia cloud her vision. Any sweetness in this production, directed by Jackson Gay, comes with a sting.

The children, it emerges, have been left alone: their angry father away on a business trip, their unhappy mother somehow missing. The four of them — including the youngest, the 5-year-old Carl (RJ Vercellone) — will have to fend for themselves.

In our first glimpse of Carl, he is scrambling out of an elaborate fort made from sheets. (The set is by Antje Ellermann.) Clutching a soccer ball, he wears only underpants, a pajama top and a snorkel with a mask. (Costumes are by Junghyun Georgia Lee.) He is comically adorable, and his tininess makes visceral the siblings’ vulnerability.

Yet using child actors in substantial roles — a temptation that master playwrights including David Rabe (in “Good for Otto”) and Tina Howe (in “Singing Beach”) have lately also succumbed to — is a risky endeavor, all the more so when there is no adult presence onstage. In Ms. Wohl’s play, it has a flattening effect, the verisimilitude of the casting lessening the theatricality of a piece so dependent on make-believe.

When the children are playing house, mimicking their parents’ dysfunction, the heightened tone of their pretending can work nicely. But in their interactions with one another the texture goes missing. It’s a built-in problem, not a reflection on this particular cast. The unfortunate consequence, though, is that the second half — when grown-up versions of these children return to the playroom — doesn’t have the emotional undergirding it needs.

Is it unfair to wonder how “Make Believe” would feel with an all-adult cast, or with puppets as the children? Maybe, but I can’t help it: There is something too earthbound and ordinary about it here, an unnecessary tedium to the children’s scenes.

One of the last times we see the children, beautifully lit by Paul Whitaker, they’re imagining themselves blasting into space. “Hold on, you guys!” Chris yells. “Hold on to each other!”

They don’t, of course, at least not tightly enough. It would be a spoiler to say too much about the second half, in which the now middle-aged siblings have come home for a funeral, but they have not loved one another as well as they might have wished.

Brad Heberlee, a “Small Mouth Sounds” alumnus, plays the adult Carl, and in his superb performance is proof of the strength of this play. Ms. Wohl has given him a monologue so raw and angry and tender that all around the auditorium, you could hear people weeping.

As we spectators sniffled, the ghosts were in the room again. And this time the source of the haunting was our own wistfulness and regret.

Make Believe
Through Sept. 30 at Hartford Stage, Hartford; 860-527-5151, hartfordstage.org. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.


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