on this story
Paige of Knoxville sees her girlhood in Anne of Avonlea
by Paige Travis
I was an impressionable youth when I read L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables. A skinny, awkward oddball couldn't have had a better role model than Anne Shirley, an orphan with red hair (that she hated but I wanted desperately) and an irrepressible imagination that led her on countless adventures that made me ache with envy. Anne was smart and stubborn and devotedly loved by her adoptive parents, sister and brother Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, her best friend Diana, her teachers and her arch-enemy Gilbert Blythe, who teased her mercilessly and later fell in love with her. Who could blame me for being a romantic when the smartest and most handsome boy in Avonlea falls in love with the red-headed orphan girl? These are the literary examples I held up to real life, and perhaps still do. Anyway, Anne was a major heroine from my youth, and one who remains in the minds of those who have eagerly devoured Montgomery's series of classic novels for young adults.
Anne's adventures lend themselves well to the stage and a performance geared toward families and young people. The play itself is a good choice for the team effort of the Pellissippi Players and the WordPlayers.
Casting Lora Wilson as Anne Shirley was the production's most successful move. If Anne can't hack it, the play's lost. With wide eyes, big gestures and a soaring voice, Wilson captures Anne's enthusiasm for absolutely everything, from the blooming cherry tree to the neighbor's pond.
In the book, Anne's arrival in Avonlea and her progressive acceptance into the community is highlighted by the contrast between her big words and overactive imagination and the crusty, no-nonsense folks like Matthew and Marilla. Matthew is a man of few words, and Marilla doesn't have much of a mothering instinct. These roles, performed by Steve Luper and Dorothy Donaldson, were perfected and defined by Richard Farnsworth and Colleen Dewhurst in the 1985 PBS series based on the books (starring Megan Follows as Anne). Luper and Donaldson had their work cut out for them and succeeded for the most part in comparison. Luper's Matthew is soft-spoken and quietly amused by this wildly talkative orphan, who isn't the boy he expected to find waiting at the train station. His dry delivery drew chuckles from the audience. Donaldson was a shrewish Marilla, and she was a bit too easily won over by the overemotional and rambunctious Anne, who puts her new parents into several difficult situations within a short time. But since we like Anne from the very beginning, it's easy to believe her adoptive mother would be charmed quickly as well.
The supporting cast is as good as can be expected with so much of the focus on Anne. Rachel Lynde (Lisa Slagle) is the town busybody and the first to tangle with the redhead's quick temper. Slagle is hammy at times, her knowing, wide-eyed looks goading the audience to laugh. It's an over-the-top but understandable approach for a family play. Several actors play their parts bigger than necessary, but it helps the few scenes that move slowly or don't seem to fit into the whole as easily as others.
Director Jeff Delaney tells as much of the story as possible through onstage action, but when this is not possible he uses offstage storytelling to good effect. In one scene, Josie Pye (Eileen Rapier) dares Anne to walk the perimeter of the barn's gutter. Instead of seeing Anne climb up and fall from the barn's roof, we hear the scene take place in the wings while Diana (Jennifer Cascio) rushes to clean up dishes from the tea party and calls frantically for Anne to be careful. Anne's display of bravado and her inevitable fall is left to our imaginations, which, by this point, have been honed by her own example.
One of the most striking and satisfying elements of the play is its sense of morality. Montgomery's novels uphold the Christian values of the Prince Edward Island community of the early 1900s, making this production a natural choice of co-producers the WordPlayers, a company of Christian artists who, according to their bio, "use theater to explore Judeo-Christian values for education, enlightenment and entertainment." The group meets its goal without being the least bit heavy-handed or preachy. The result is a play with an overwhelming wholesomeness. Young people always need to hear these kinds of messages, with or without the religious content, in order to make sense of their world. As a young reader, I took from Montgomery's novels a few lessons about life: Education is important; drama and passion are okay; and being smart is more valuable than being pretty. These are important lessons, and it's refreshing when they come in as pleasant a package as this production of Anne of Green Gables.
November 9, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 45
© 2000 Metro Pulse