Although based on a doll and her accompanying novel series, the Seattle Children's Theatre's world-premiere of Addy: An American Girl Story is full of surprising depth and compelling characters that any family member might enjoy and find resonant.
Award-winning local playwright Cheryl L. West has adroitly adapted the tween-oriented novellas by Connie Porter for the Seattle Children's Theatre (SCT) stage, and Director Linda Hartzell has lead a skillful cast of predominately Seattle-based actors to bring the work to life. In addition to young-girl pleasing connections to the popular dolls, vibrant costuming and set-design, and a heart-warming and courageous heroine (played convincingly by Myxolydia Tyler), the play also offers tense escape scenes and the ever-present background of the Civil War to hold the interest of action-lovers of both genders. Words such as "Emancipation Proclamation" are introduced and the hardships of post-slavery life give the story complexity without letting its nuances surpass the comprehension of the play's target audience. SCT recommends the performance for ages eight and up, but I brought a sophisticated five-year-old who handled the content quite well and had many questions afterwards. The play serves as an excellent starting point for introducing young people to the concepts of slavery, abolition, Civil War politics and the privilege of education. At the same time, the seriousness of the material is given levity with the antics of a bossy rich girl at Addy's school, a birthday party and a heartwarming family reunion.
Some might argue that the play skims over the horrors of slavery, but I felt it captured precisely the correct note for a young audience. The plantation master cracks his whip, Addy is forced to eat tobacco worms, Poppa is seen wearing shackles, and all of the slaves live a life of destitution and hard work — even the kids. These scenes, as well as Momma and Addy's escape through a raging river to the sounds of barking dogs were a little scary for the younger children of the audience and even made me sit a little straighter in my seat.
The entire plot revolves around family togetherness and the play ends with a family-oriented resolution — an interesting choice given that racism is still ever-present in our society and global slavery and human trafficking is on the rise in our modern times. Then again, do we really want our eight-year-old daughters worrying about being sold into slavery? Addy is certainly no Toni Morrison and perhaps the play ends too positively for such a topic, but the cast members leave the door open for continued family discussion by ending with a question, and with a question-and-answer session at the conclusion of the production. What is your family history? What does freedom mean to you?
As would be expected for a play based on a doll that takes place largely in a dress shop, the costumes are a lush bouquet of appropriately worn cotton twills and shining new taffetas and velvets. Gorgeous stage sets weave together traditional furniture and store-front elements with artful video projections of forests, water, cavalry of the Civil War, moonlit nights and Philadelphia city streets cast onto the floor and screens that gracefully drop down from the ceiling. Combined with the tasteful introduction of sound elements (this is not a musical), the play's presentation gives the production an edge that is satisfying for the adult viewer, although possibly confusing for the younger children in the audience.
An American Girl Doll marketing push is notably absent; although the gift shop area of the theater carries the Addy books, they are tucked in the back of the shop and the charming but expensive dolls and their accoutrements are nowhere to be seen, save for a few small companions in tow by the girls of the audience.
Addy: An American Girl Story plays through June 10, 2007. Tickets are between $20 and $32. A special tea with the actors will take place on Sunday, June 3 at 3:30 p.m. Tickets for the tea are $53 for children and $60 for adults. To purchase tickets for the play or the tea, visit www.sct.org or call 206-441-3322.