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Theater review: ‘The Railway Children’ adaptation worth hopping aboard

  • The cast of Northern Stage’s production of “The Railway Children” appears in a scene from the play. Courtesy Northern Stage — Mark Washburn

  • From left, Monet Nowlan, Tommy Crawford, Reya Sharma and Callum Heinsch appear in a scene from Northern Stage’s production of “The Railway Children.” Courtesy Northern Stage — Mark Washburn

For the Valley News
Published: 11/30/2022 9:47:00 PM
Modified: 11/30/2022 9:47:06 PM

A breezy saxophone tune fills the auditorium as the audience settles in. The set is an inviting interior: cozy sofa, a bar cart complete with a decanter of scotch, an upright piano, and of course, a towering Christmas tree twinkling with white lights and baubles. It’s the home of a young and prosperous Boston family — Father, Mother and three children, Roberta (frequently called Bobbie), Peter and Phyllis. They exchange gifts, share gratitude and hugs. All is well.

Young Peter (played by Callum Heinsch) and Phyllis (Margaret Hourdequin) get into a tussle over Peter’s new toy steam engine (“the greatest invention of the 19th century!” Father proclaims) and as a result, the train breaks. Things turn sour as a mysterious duo enter briskly from the proscenium. Dressed in trench coats, faces hidden by tall collars and tilted hats, they take Father (Billy Finn) off stage. Mother (Jayne McLendon) anxiously consoles the children and tries to keep the merriment going. Loud voices boom from offstage; something is definitely awry. Mother flees to see what the commotion is and returns, frightened and alone.

So begins Northern Stage’s production of The Railway Children, an adaptation of Edith Nesbit’s 1905 novel of the same title. For the play, which premiered at Northern Stage last weekend, Carol Dunne and Eric Love adapted (and co-directed) the story to take place in 1929 White River Junction, shortly after the stock market crash and ensuing economic depression. With the father’s whereabouts a mystery, the family’s resources dwindle and Mother tells the children that they’re moving to White River Junction, into a modest country house she had inherited from a distant aunt. The story is especially apt given the wave of Upper Valley transplants (myself included) who left urban centers during the pandemic. The themes of dislocation, reacclimation and community-building resonate strongly.

Some of the actors play multiple roles and slip seamlessly into their characters. Alexis Sims, who plays Dr. Mullen, as well as the president of the Ladies Auxiliary, was especially compelling to watch as she commanded the stage with expressive physicality and intense eye contact with the audience. Tommy Crawford plays Perks (the Station Porter) as an impish, if grumpy station worker. He and his wife (Rachel Mulcahy) have several fun duets in which he plays guitar as she fiddles. The two actors have great chemistry and their musical talents complement each other. His voice is raw and tentative to her more polished sound.

Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter are played by two different sets of children who alternate showtimes. In the Nov. 23 preview that I attended, the children were played by Bebhinn Knudsen (Bobbie), Callum Heinsch (Peter), and Margaret Hourdequin (Phyllis) who outshined their adult counterparts mainly because they so fully inhabited their characters. Perhaps it has something to do with kids’ capacity for playing make-believe, their imaginations yet untarnished by the dreary demands of adulthood. Knudsen already has serious acting chops, and gives a moving performance as she transitions from carefree tween to earnest caretaker.

The play is narrated by the Station Agent (Joy Lynn Jacobs) who guides viewers through the tale with wit and wisdom. Jacobs is a force on stage — a strong matriarchal figure — and her monologues create continuity as the story grows increasingly complex. The narrative unraveled a bit when Mr. Shevenko (also played by Billy Finn) was introduced. Why does the exiled author speak French but sing in Ukrainian? The character in the original novel was Russian, though in this adaptation he’s Ukrainian, presumably to reflect current events. However, this retrofitting feels forced, as the story already contains the emotive ingredients it needs to elicit empathy from a modern audience. That’s the power of metaphor.

As I pulled up to the theater, I wondered if I’d seem out of place — like, “what’s this random guy doing attending a kid’s show?” But as I entered Barrette Center for the Arts, the crowd was full of 30-something friend groups, couples of all ages, teenagers and, of course, families. The play runs two hours and 20 minutes with a 15-minute intermission — quite long for a production geared to families with young children. But as I scanned the audience during the performance the kids were completely engrossed. I imagine the house would have been packed to the rafters, but it seemed as though seats were left empty between parties to promote social distance. While the theater recently revised its masking policy (recommended, not required) about a third of audience members masked for the show.

The transition scene from city to country was well-choreographed. The company came in from the wings singing We Take the Train, (the show’s fourth musical number) and in a flurry of activity began hauling away the family’s belongings. The actors sat on luggage simulating a train car, and the song continued into a stirring harmony, an expansive but slightly foreboding tune that anticipated the family’s new life. The music crescendos with the company marching around the stage as a crowd of busy commuters exit and board. After Mother soothes them with song, the company breaks into the jaunty, aptly titled song “White River Junction.”

The lighting and art direction pull the production together. One sequence in which a steam engine comes to an abrupt stop was particularly exciting and beautifully executed. Kudos to lighting designer Carolina Ortiz Herrera and scenic designer Alexander Woodward. Co-composers Jane Shaw (also credited as sound designer) and Mark Hartman (also music supervisor) seamlessly threaded the musical numbers, dialogue and sound effects into a cohesive experience. The Railway Children is indeed a terrific production that will appeal, in words made famou by Nat King Cole, “to kids from 1 to 92.”

The Railway Children runs through Jan. 1 at Northern Stage’s Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction. Tickets range from $19 to $69. $20 under 25. $19 for students of all ages. More information:

Eric Sutphin is a freelance writer. He lives in Plainfield.

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