Heartwarming, hilarious, and fun, reminiscent in tone to It’s a Wonderful Life, and similar in its moral purpose, Snow White and the Family Dwarf makes an uplifting holiday entertainment. It’s a sweet retelling of the classic fairytale, one in which the original horrors have been replaced by puppy-dog tails and spiced with everything nice – even the Disney version has been scrubbed for a moral makeover. There’s a certain sense in which that could be annoying, but the Providence Players of Fairfax’s production, directed by Beth Whitehead, is so entertaining that one doesn’t really have the time or inclination to let oneself feel “grumpy” about it. And why would one want to?
The action begins in a magic shop, where infant Snow White’s new stepmother, the evil queen (Charlene Sloan), purchases her famous “Mirror on the Wall.” The mirror (Christian D. Faulkner) is nowise happy about going home with such a customer, and he never fully reconciles himself to that fate.
Before the queen leaves the shop, an ominous storm begins that hasn’t abated nineteen years of bad weather later, by which point a much rained upon Snow White (Rachel Yeager) is all grown up and the mirror (from which she has hitherto been kept hidden) declares that she surpasses the queen in beauty of character. In a nice touch that has the potential to rethink the fairy tale, the script leaves it indeterminate whether Snow White actually exceeds queen in beauty of form, opening up the possibility that the queen hates Snow White’s goodness as much as her beauty (even though this angle’s not much developed).
In any case, the vanity of the queen has been offended and it’s more than she can take, so she sends Snow White off to the forest with the royal huntsman (Michael Holland), whom she commands to murder the princess. The Huntsman is docile enough to attempt to carry out the queen’s command, but he’s less than bummed out when Snow White, who proves more than a match for him, gets loose and escapes – he didn’t want to kill her anyway. The queen’s servants are compliant but hardly adoring of their mistress’s egomaniacal personality.
Snow White flees through the woods until she stumbles upon the cottage of the Dwarf family. The Dwarf family are dwarves in the same sense that the Green family are green. After a few awkward moments the Dwarfs and Snow White are fast friends. The Dwarfs take Snow White into their household as a new and beloved member. Snow White looks after the cottage by day as the Dwarfs go off to work in the mines. Soon the queen discovers that Snow White is still alive and living out in the forest, and she hatches a plot (in two attempts) to kill her lovely step-daughter.
Needless to say, she doesn’t succeed. I won’t give away the ending, except to say that it’s a very nice one. There’s a bit of low-key romantic comedy, and while there’s still a prince, he isn’t exactly charming. Actually, he is, in a way — but not the expected way.
Snow White and the Family Dwarf is a mish-mash of comedy and social criticism, of preciousness and farce. It’s a lot of fun, and I – along with most of the audience – laughed and laughed throughout the show. The humor runs the gamut from broad and buffoonish (the Queen, Mirror, and Prince), to the whimsical (Snow White and the Dwarfs), to the touching (Snow White and Peg). It’s perfect for the holiday season, a bit like warm apple cider, spiked perhaps with a shot of rum. In other words, it goes down easy and makes you feel good.
The performances are strong throughout, certainly in the major roles. Witty farce requires perfect timing and a bigness of character that Charlene Sloan (The Queen), Christian D. Faulkner (Mirror), and Blake Gouhari, as the Prince, consistently deliver. A few lines here and there fall flat, the pace is from time to time a bit too fast for every laugh-line to hit, but for the most part that isn’t the case. Broad comedy has a high potential to flop, so I really have to commend the Providence Players, for getting most everything right in this respect. The three clowns are indispensable in making the show so entertaining.
Greg Palmer, the playwright, and Rachel Yeager, the actress cast as Snow White, have between the two of them come up with a character that radiates personality, a quality missing from the putative heroine in many versions of the tale. This Snow White is no blank slate nor simply a pretty face, but an intelligent, friendly young woman who lives and breathes and also happens to be a truly good person. Yeager brings to the part an unworldly but grounded, sensitive innocence that reminded me more than in passing of Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin; it’s hard to write, or play, a character that’s compelling and believable and saintly all at once, but here Snow White manages to be all these things and it really works. I do think that Palmer’s Snow White, to fit the play’s rethinking of the tradition, should have had more spunk, and been less passive – which, more than not, she still is here — but that’s a relatively minor complaint.
Palmer recognized that the dwarf Dopey, in the Disney version, suffered from an intellectual disability and that it was atrocious the way his brother dwarves treated him on that account. To teach a better lesson in his version, Palmer wrote the part of Peg Dwarf, who also suffers from an intellectual disability, and who, despite being physically the same age as Snow White, nineteen, is much younger in mental age. Peg is funny, loving, simple but good, adorable, and much loved by her family. They treat her with dignity, and trust her to do important things, like hang around with Snow White to guard her against the evil machinations of the queen. Here Peg is played delightfully by Hazel Thurston, with all the dignity, warmth, and glowing sincerity the part demands. Hers is one of the standout performances of the night.
The production stands out in other ways, notably in the design. Brian O’Connor’s stage construct, from the Dwarfs’ house to the mirror in the palace wall, is ingenious, economical, cheerful, and – as concerns the cottage – homey. Jason Hamrick’s sound design impressed me as well. All too often I have seen shows where the sound effects and musical scoring seem thrown in for their own sake with detriment to the dramatic action, but here both music and effects enhance the drama when they appear (which they do sparingly). The five costume designers have produced outfits that are simple, fairy-tale, and fun. The queen’s old crone mask is truly frightening.
Overall, this is a superior production of a play that’s entertaining and upright in its intentions. Its self-conscious relation to the well-known source material asks us to rethink our relation to, and our understanding of, that material. It asks us to adopt a critical attitude toward mass entertainments, folk traditions, and commonplace day-to-day attitudes. It’s a different, delightful holiday show.
Running Time: 90 minutes, including one intermission.
Snow White and the Family Dwarf plays through December 20, 2015 at Providence Players of Fairfax, performing at The James Lee Community Center Theater – 2855 Annandale Road, in Falls Church, VA. For tickets, call (703) 425-6782, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.
Providence Players of Fairfax present this humorous and heart-warming tale, perfect for audiences of all ages, as a fund raiser for the The Young Hearts Foundation working to improve the lives of young people affected by long-term illness. Over the past three years, PPF and the Young Hearts have collaborated during the holiday season to raise more than $24,000 to support the Young Hearts’ mission.
Now Playing: Providence Players Opens a Family Friendly Comic Twist on A Classic Tale: ‘Snow White and the Family Dwarf’ To Benefit The Young Hearts Foundation by Chip Gertzog.