“It’s not the done thing,” characters advise one another correctively at key points in “Walk Two Moons,” a spunky, mostly sparkling new stage adaptation of Sharon Creech’s Newbery-winning children’s book. Production kicks off the touring company Theatreworks/NYC’s first New York sit-down season with down-home flair and just the faintest whiff of it’s-good-for-you obligation.
For independent-minded 13-year-old Salamanca (Sarah Lord), of course, the “done thing” is the last thing she wants to be lectured about — not by her well-meaning father (Lucas Papaelias), who uproots her from their old Kentucky home to an Ohio exurb after her mom disappears; not by her loosey-goosey grandparents (Charles H. Hyman, Peggy Scott), who take her on a rambling road trip of dubious purpose and possibly reckless driving; and certainly not by her high-strung new best friend, Phoebe (Susan Louise O’Connor), a pint-sized drama queen prone to paranoid snap judgments.
It’s Phoebe who sets the play’s central story-within-a-story in motion, with her crisscrossing suspicions about an ostensibly creepy neighbor (Heather Dilly) and a phantomlike, guitar-wielding “potential lunatic” (Papaelias), who leaves cryptic notes that reduce Phoebe’s otherwise impassive 1950s-housewife mom (Dilly) to tears. In one of the play’s odder twists, Phoebe simultaneously idealizes and diminishes her mother’s “tiny life” of chores, cholesterol-free cooking and perfect clothes — and her daughter’s disdain in fact seems to be a catalyst for Mom’s liberation.
But things aren’t always what they seem here, and in her bemusedly earnest probing of modern life’s complications, Creech captures a pre-teen’s awakening consciousness that all is not right with the world and that grown-ups don’t have all the answers. As Salamanca puts it with inarguable succinctness, “Moms are weird.”
There are matter-of-fact hints at parents’ extra- or post-marital peccadilloes, subtle swipes at constraining gender roles, a stages-of-grief undercurrent — elements that, in a few years’ time, would constitute grounds for full-blown teenage angst, but here, stirred with remnant traces of childlike wonder, create a sort of junior-high magical realism.
Director Melissa Kievman’s production has its store of unfussy theatrical wonders, from Papaelias’ fragrant live-guitar underscoring to lighting designer Paul Hackenmueller’s evocative vistas. Louisa Thompson’s expansive, elemental set, centering a picture frame within the larger proscenium frame, rhymes nicely with the piece’s stories-within-stories structure.
Playwright Julia Jordan has translated this to the stage with a deft and sure hand, and Kievman’s versatile cast generally nails the right blend of goof and gravitas. The dark-eyed Lord suggests a cross between Harper Lee’s tomboy Scout and querulous Dorothy Gale, while O’Connor gives full range to Phoebe, from cartoonish to crumpled. Dilly is offhandedly masterful in her various roles, while the shaggy-haired Papaelias is blankly engaging.
The roles of the road-tripping oldsters — to whom Salamanca unspools her yarns, and who in turn try to loosen her up with their gosh-darn spontaneity and glee — would be thanklessly cutesy in anyone’s hands. But Hyman and Scott waltz smilingly right into the familiar faux-folksy traps.
The show’s final revelations and life lessons won’t rock anyone’s world, probably least of all the pop-saturated youngsters who are the show’s target audience. But “Walk Two Moons” embodies the axiom that life is about the journey, not the destination — it’s in the doing, not the done thing.