While few of us remember childhood as a time free from dread and fear, recent generations have grown up under the cultural influence of Walt Disney’s formula of adapting fairy tales by eliding over their darker elements. Hardcover Theater, a company that specializes in deft literary adaptations, has veered hard in the other direction with “The Savage Joy of Breaking Things,” its adaptation of Lucy Clifford’s “The New Mother,” from her 1882 collection “Anyhow Stories.” What was once ostensibly a story for children is here presented for adults with raw, fearful, subterranean power.
The action revolves around a pair of children. Blue Eyes (Terri Elofson Bly) and Turkey (Perry Thrun) live alone with their mother (Christine Winkler). Their days are portrayed as a routine of hollow repetition, in which they travel through a spooky forest to a general store to buy groceries from wry Mr. Gower (Craig Anderson), who every day offers them candy. They refuse without fail, having been ordered by Mom to abstain; indeed, the children’s very identity is based on their obedience and goodness.
Their equilibrium is shattered in the forest one day when they meet a gypsy girl (Katie Guentzel, appropriately seductive and malevolent) playing a sad song on an instrument forged from a gourd. Magical creatures live inside, she tells the children, but they can’t be seen unless the children agree to be naughty. When the kids accept a lemon drop, the gypsy mocks them. True naughtiness, it turns out, will involve a good deal more transgression.
When the kids begin to act up in earnest, their mother sadly informs them what will happen if they keep it up: she will be forced to leave them, and a new mother will arrive with red shining eyes, dragging a wooden tail. Winkler, mysteriously wan and vacant, delivers these lines with a matter-of-fact weariness that chills. Bly and Thrun, who start out obsequious and servile, by this point show an innocent zeal for small-time corruption.
Still, the die is cast. Adapter-director Steve Schroer has taken Clifford’s short tale about misbehavior and punishment and gleefully, almost sadistically, drawn out its darkness and malice. From time to time the children stop and reflect on the oddity of their existence, dimly aware of their half-life as characters in a fable. Anderson, as the shopkeep, delivers an increasing sense of hemmed-in desperation until his character does away with himself as the action grows to a pitch.
This show walks a balance between winsome and horrific, and a couple of forest spirits who interpret the story in ghostly moans veer a bit close to camp. Still, there’s no denying the piece’s sheer originality and mythic power, and its willingness to mine a seemingly innocuous fairy tale for all its shadows and dark places.
Schroer’s script and direction, for their part, exceed the production’s small-theater trappings. Grownups arriving home after the play may find they need a nightlight in their room for the first time in decades.