It's been a long time since I thought about Anne of Green Gables, the first book in the series by L.M. Montgomery. I loved the books as a child, and I jumped at the chance to take my first-grade daughter to Theaterworks USA's musical adaptation today in Lowell. The production, which premiered Off-Broadway in 2007, was part of the UMass Lowell Center for the Arts 2007-2008 Discovery Series season.
I had forgotten how much was in the novel, which I poured over so many years ago, and this production reminded me. Trying to condense a 300-page book into a 60-minute performance for families cannot be an easy task. It would be easy to point out things that were left out, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss some of them. But the basic story of Anne Shirley, the orphan girl sent by mistake to an aging pair of siblings with a farm to tend to, came through even in the shortened timeframe. Even though they wanted a boy, the Cuthberts can't bear to send away a child who has never had a permanent family. Anne brings them more than they bargained for -- not only endless aggravation, but also love and joy. In turn, Anne finds friendship, love and acceptance from others and within herself.
It was an enjoyable production for all ages in the audience, although the generations may have experienced the story on different levels. The set was quite bare and left a lot to the imagination, almost to the point that, to a child, it might be confusing. When a buggy ride was necessary, a bench and a set of reins were all that was necessary. I thought that was clever, but to my daughter, a buggy is a Volkswagen Beetle rather than one of the horse-drawn variety. And she wasn't quite sure what it meant when the lights dimmed slightly and a character who died got up and walked off the stage. I'm sure others her age and younger had similar reactions. They just don't have enough experience with live theater to interpret those things confidently.
There was plenty of movement on the set to indicate the change of scenes, though, with actors quietly moving table and chairs, or desks and chalkboard, on and off the set as necessary. The songs were well-done and came frequently enough that the pacing kept the interest of even the youngest in the audience. Eva Berger conveyed Anne's dramatic personality and propensity for exaggeration and intense feeling; she made Anne seem immature, but not overly silly. Yet, I was a little thrown by the fact Anne, who is just 11 when she meets the Cuthberts in the novel, begins the play already looking like a grown woman, albeit with a pair of long red braids and an abundance of energy and impertinence. Sixty minutes later, she is 16 and a half and doesn't look appreciably different.
The production retained some key dialog and showed just enough of Anne's character to see her lack of judgement getting her into trouble: accidentally dyeing her red hair green in the heat of emotion caused by a neighbor-boy calling her Carrots, then making her "bosom friend" drunk on what she thought was a special, but non-alcoholic, beverage. Both incidents got laughs from the audience -- they were funny -- but resulted in Anne's estrangement from those involved, a heartbreaking, even "tragical" circumstance for a girl who so yearned for close relationships. She is, after all, an orphan who has been passed from one family to another with no real love or stability in her life until she arrives at Green Gables with the old, worn, broken carpet bag that contains all her "worldly goods." (I couldn't help but think of today's foster children who are often moved from one home to another with nothing but a trash bag for their belongings). The audience was also able to see Anne's deep feeling and capacity to love winning the hearts of those around her -- mellowing even Marissa Cuthbert's strict and pragmatic nature.
As a child, I read Anne's personality as spunky, fun and imaginative. As a member of the audience today, I saw her much more as a girl with a desperate need for love and acceptance. As the story unfolds, it's clear that she's not the only one with that need. I hope the show will inspire many children in the audience to take a look at Montgomery's original novel and experience the full version of Anne Shirley and her beloved Green Gables. Perhaps adults, too. I know I'll be reading it again.