“Living a good life is more important than living a long time,” says Adam Howard as Wilbur the pig in Charlotte’s Web, now extended through Feb. 3 at Arden Theatre Company. Light-shot and good-hearted, this production does honor to E.B. White’s honest, frank tale of friendship, loss, and sacrifice amid barnyard shenanigans. Its values make it ideal family theater for the holiday season.
Besides, the kids had a ball.
As one of the few audience members of double-digit age, I can report that Wednesday morning’s audience hollered to join the participation bits (a gosling parade; Whac-A-Mole at the County Fair with outsize hammers; an uproarious slap-button horse race), screamed as Wilbur runs loose through the audience; clapped in time to the hootenanny bits; and oohed and aahed without prompting.
And when Ayana Strutz, the true star of this show as Charlotte the spider, makes her entrance, descending on gymnastic silks and doing a reverse, inverted crab-walk around Wilbur’s pen, the awed crowd applauded.
This is the third Charlotte at the Arden: It was their first kids' play in 1998-99, and it returned in 2011-12. Whit McLaughlin, founder of New Paradise Laboratories and director of 21 Arden shows over the years, assembles a Philly-strong cast deep in performance arts, which invigorates the show with a light, nimble step. Campbell O’Hare, who plays Wilbur’s champion, Fern, is a member of the Wilma Hothouse. Alex Bechtel, a Pig Iron grad, is a star at guitar and at goose talk. Jo Vito Ramirez, who plays Avery Arable, is a SoLow Fest veteran and Shoe Box Theatre Collective member. Emilie Krause, great as Edith Zuckerman and a cynical Lamb, is a New Paradise member. And then there is the spider-like Strutz of the Professional Circus Training Program.
Howard charms as Wilbur, the optimistic piglet who doesn’t know what’s happening to him. O’Hare is great as Fern, who defends him from becoming sausage but later turns to other interests. The ubiquitous Alex Keiper makes a very good goose, and J. Hernandez is dashingly selfish as Templeton the rat.
This is a story of valuing someone else for what they are, misgivings and all. The insect-hunting Charlotte, says Wilbur, “is brutal and bloodthirsty … but she is very beautiful and clever.” Charlotte does not touch Wilbur; she’s no hugger. Strutz plays her with a tensile braid of the automatic and the empathetic: She gazes at him, takes him in, and decides, matter-of-factly, to rescue him.
This production was very good at showing us Charlotte teaching Wilbur about bravery. Many in the audience had read the book (a kid behind me said, “I read that about a thousand times”), yet at the acme of Charlotte’s story, the audience, so raucous throughout, fell quiet, getting the message.
Wilbur calls her “a true friend and a good writer.” E.B. White is one of our greats, and this lovely, engrossing show does him, and friendship (and writing!) the justice they deserve.