'Hans Brinker,' a story of grit on ice

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Arden's "Hans Brinker" stars (from left) Lauren Hirte, Rachel Camp, Ciji Prosser, and Ed Swidey.

A few weeks ago, City Hall's Dilworth Park opened its ice rink. On Friday, Blue Cross RiverRink at Penn's Landing debuted for the season. And at noon Saturday, actors at Arden Theatre will ice-skate on stage in the opening-day performance of the world premiere of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates.

Playwright Laura Eason adapted the 1865 children's classic - the story of a brave, obstacle-overcoming, canal-skating Dutch brother and sister, written by American author Mary Mapes Dodge. The play, now in previews, is officially part of the Arden Children's Theatre program, but Eason, an accomplished television writer, stage director, actor, and singer-songwriter, prefers to think of the production as "family theater."

"It's not a show where you bring your kids, and you can think about something else when you're there," she said. "Some other works for family audiences . . . can feel like something secondary, that it is not primary to the organization as reflected in resources or quality."

The stories in the Arden children's program "are accessible to kids, to a family audience, but there's nothing else in our creative process that feels any different from any other show. We bring our full arsenal of tools, sophisticated design."

To Eason, who acted a few years back in the Arden's production of Hard Times, Dodge's 19th-century tale "felt like a Dickens novel I had never read. The quality of these morally centered children who've had to endure incredibly difficult life circumstances, and, because of their hard work and optimism, their situation begins to turn around - those are powerful themes in the world at this moment."

In the play, directed by Whit MacLaughlin, adults play all the roles, including siblings Hans (Brian Ratcliffe) and Gretel (Lauren Hirte). Other themes include empathy, bravery, bullying, and perseverance. As for the sets and such, windmills turn, live harp and violin play, and skating happens via a moving floor. (You didn't think there actually would be ice on stage, did you?)

Hans Brinker has been in the works for some time. About three years ago, Arden producing artistic director Terry Nolen commissioned Eason, of Brooklyn, to create it, but an offer for an up-and-coming Netflix drama intervened. The gig? Writing for House of Cards.

In Eason's best-known episode, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), wife of the murderous vice president, admits in a live TV interview that she has had an abortion - not exactly family-show fodder. Eason's also well-known for her play Sex With Strangers, now performed across the country. Also not family theater. Her 5-year-old daughter, she says, has called the Arden play "the one I can see."

Eason and Nolen agreed Hans Brinker was probably best for the older-than-6 crowd. Eason says she hopes that, "at intermission, children [in the audience] will kick off their shoes and try to skate around the lobby."

Her greater hope is that shows like hers will become part of a larger movement. "I think we need deeper, richer stories for children," she said. "I feel lucky to have the opportunity to make one."

mccutch@phillynews.com

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@LaMcCutch