The timeless story of kind and courageous young heroine Sara Crewe comes to life on an Alexandria stage in A Little Princess, a new adaptation of the classic Frances Hodgson Burnett novel by Lauren Ennis Nichols. Aldersgate Church Community Theater’s production, continuing Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through July 23rd, is a delight for children and adults alike, and would make an especially fine mother-daughter outing.
In the capable hands of Director Corey Latta Bales, a cast of 17 actors – 11 of whom are children – faithfully retell the beloved story of the richest little girl at a London boarding school, whose fortunes are reversed when her father dies far off in India. Sara must muster her inner strength and grace to soldier on as her life is transformed from privilege to poverty. Remaining at Miss Minchin’s Seminary for Young Ladies, where she once occupied the parlor bedroom, Sara is mistreated, forced into servitude, and exiled to an attic bedroom where rats keep her company.
Bales succeeds throughout the production in keeping Sara’s kindness and determination in clear focus, starting with her casting decisions. She rests the play on the shoulders of 12-year-old Katherine Kailey as Sara, who rises to the challenge. Tall, bright-eyed and clear-voiced, Kailey infuses Sara with a gentle wisdom. “If you have everything you want and everyone is kind to you, how can you help but be good tempered?” she wonders during happy times. Having never faced any difficulties, Sara realizes, “I don’t know how I shall ever find out whether I am really a nice child or a horrid one.” Kailey’s earnest delivery makes this moment truly poignant for anyone familiar with the arc of the story.
Sara’s mettle is quickly tested as Miss Minchin, played with carefully controlled villainy by Marilyn Pifer, learns the kindly but indulgent Captain Crewe (Michael Doane) has died, unexpectedly leaving his daughter penniless. Pifer energizes every scene with her performance as a dour, greedy and manipulative schoolmistress whose awe of wealth turns to rage and abuse when Sara loses her father and his fortune. Doane is quietly assured in his role, and plainly adores his child.
Tom Kearney delivers a comical, show-stopping performance as the flamboyant French master, Monsieur Dufarge, in the first act, and manages to top it in the second act with his nuanced portrayal of Mr. Carriford, Captain Crewe’s friend who holds the key to Sara’s future. Kearney reaches deep within himself to embody Carriford, a tortured and conflicted character who berates himself for his inability to find his late friend’s daughter.
Sara’s schoolmates burst with personality. Sarah King stands out as the jealous and mean-spirited Lavinia, whose status as the most doted-upon girl in the school is upended when Sara arrives. King’s Lavinia projects superiority as she taunts and teases Sara. Her bullying behavior is firmly grounded in the 19th century and never hints at modern influences, showing impressive discernment for a young actress. As Lavinia’s sidekick Jessie, Logan Price goes along until she realizes Lavinia has crossed a line into cruelty. Price delivers her rebuke of Lavinia with disbelief and power, making it one of the show’s most memorable moments.
Simple and loyal Ermengarde, Sara’s closest friend, is delightfully interpreted by Dara Kearney, a charming little firecracker of an actress. Her Ermengarde is, in the modern parlance, ditzy — but also kind. The daughter of Tom Kearney, she delivers some of the funniest lines in the play with flawless timing. Molly Johnson captures the innocence and neediness of the youngest student, Lottie, with a performance that features a rip-roaring temper tantrum. Johnson, a rising sixth grader who is already a proven community theater artist, makes her non-musical debut in this production, and puts her sweet soprano to impressive use with Lottie’s ear-splitting wails.
Evie Graham Jewett is expressive and credible as Becky the scullery maid. Her most challenging scene is one in which she becomes the first child at the school to learn the awful news about Captain Crewe’s death. She is hiding under a table, and yet it’s impossible to take your eyes off her, and her grief on behalf of her friend is palpable.
Viktoria Truitt makes an outsized impact with her Act 2 role as the street urchin Anne, underscoring the theater dictum that “there are no small parts, only small actors.” Eliza Froemke, Katie Clement and Abby Doane are animated and engaging in their roles as schoolgirls, staying in character and providing texture and depth to scenes even when they are in the background.
Richard Fiske, as the lawyers Mr. Barrows and Mr. Carmichael, delivers two distinct and fully formed character interpretations. Scott Stofko infuses the role of Ram Dass with the right amount of magic, mystery, and quiet dignity. Macey Porter, as Miss Minchin’s sister Amelia, captures her character’s meekness and, ultimately, her surprising strength. One of the most satisfying scenes of the play is Porter’s lecture that concludes, “You are a hard woman, Maria Minchin.” Elise Zhang, as the cold-hearted cook and the compassionate shopkeeper in back-to-back scenes, skillfully differentiates the two performances without benefit of a real costume change.
The production achieves a striking and authentic look through careful set and costume design, is effectively lit, and has crisp sound. It is not, however, without flaws. A little more lighting and props magic could help the audience imagine Ram Dass’s transformation of Sara’s attic bedroom, a pivotal scene in the narrative that falls a bit flat visually. A wheelchair should be offstage during scenes when it isn’t needed. The production wisely dispenses with British accents except, puzzlingly, in the case of the servant Becky, who struggles at times to maintain it.
These concerns, however, are at the margins. This is, after all, community theater, not Broadway. A Little Princess is a play that will reward families with its gentle pace, heartfelt messages, and absorbing performances. Aldersgate’s church-hall theater has been upgraded in recent years to include more comfortable seating, and snacks and drinks are available during intermission. My 11-year-old companion was engrossed in the play and said she recommends that other children see it.
Perhaps seeing it will prompt some audience members to pick up the book and enjoy the wisdom of young Sara Crewe in unabridged splendor. Rarely has a child in literature possessed such powerful and enduring insights. Consider this: “When people are insulting you, there is nothing so good for them as not to say a word – just to look at them and think. Miss Minchin turns pale with rage when I do it, Miss Amelia looks frightened, and so do the girls. When you will not fly into a passion, people know you are stronger than they are, because you are strong enough to hold in your rage, and they are not, and they say stupid things they wish they hadn’t said afterward.”
Author Bio: Debra Cope is a writer, avid theater-goer, and a mother of two daughters. She resides in Alexandria, Virginia.