Review: The Wind in the Willows

by Wendy Rosenfield

for the Inquirer

Quintessence Theatre Group takes its mission seriously, presenting classic works performed by a regular ensemble that features some of Philly's finest young actors. So it stands to reason that when the company decided to mount its first production aimed at children and families, it would pick Alan Bennett's 21/2-hour adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, and not, say, Jack and the Beanstalk.

As parents know, even with an intermission, 150 minutes is a very long time for toddlers and their elementary school brethren to remain in their seats fidget-free. Consider also that director Alexander Burns makes little concession to Disneyesque cute-ification of the 1908 tale's woodland creatures. The rabbits, tail- and earless - save a swirly white fascinator on lady bunny Lee Minora - adopt twitchy leporine postures. A draft horse, Albert (Sean Bradley), merely hangs his heavy head while calling for worker protections. Weasels slink about with pinched faces, but thanks to costumer Jane Casanave, they're also dressed like Jersey mobsters in white turtlenecks, fedoras, and camel blazers.

Burns' subtle anthropomorphism becomes even subtler among Grahame's principals. Toad's belly is stuffed full, but it's Khris Davis' bug-eyed self-importance that resonates. Daniel Fredrick's Rat twitches his mustache over a very British, very stiff upper lip, but softens around his best friends: unassuming, rumpled Mole (Sean Close) and gruff Badger (Jake Blouch). Badger has stripes in his beard and Rat puffs about in Harris tweed, but these characterizations matter most for who they are, not what they are - a fine message at any age.

Equally lovely are Jamison Foreman's nickelodeon-style piano-playing and the appearance of the much-adored Piper at the Gates of Dawn, depicted as a laurel-wreathed classical figure shrouded in smoke, an image sure to stick in an awestruck youngster's subconscious. These, along with David Cope's original music (a Brechtian "Where's Toad?" chant is particularly hilarious) and Burns' simple set - a sheet waved at both ends to indicate flowing water, upturned chairs lit from below to serve as a bonfire, a black wheeled cart that becomes a boat, a locomotive, and several of Toad's ill-fated automobiles - make magic from the everyday, much as a child might. 

And that's Quintessence's secret for keeping every age engaged. This fully formed production neither condescends to its audience nor betrays its source. Though Mount Airy's Sedgwick Theatre needs a better heating unit (bundle up those kids), onstage there's warmth enough to spare.

Presented by Quintessence Theatre Group at Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave., through Jan. 5. Tickets: $15 to $25. Information: 215-987-4450 or QuintessenceTheatre.org

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