Harriet Potter, entirely homegrown10/1/2014
Few shows put the “community” in community theater more emphatically than the one in Ankeny right now. The cast of “The Little Princess” includes six adults, with day jobs like insurance adjuster, and more than twice as many local children, ranging in age from third grade to 10th. These players include family, too. Little Chloe Williams, playing something like the mouse who roared, stands up to a wicked schoolmistress played by her mother. Then there’s the playwright, another local, Cynthia Mercati.
The Ankeny production marks the play’s premier — or you might call it a “world premier.” The script is adapted from a British classic, a YA book before the category existed (1905, to be precise). It has episodes set in India and an Indian “ayah,” a maidservant, while the heroine might be Harry Potter’s younger sibling Harriet. Granted, what “Princess” calls “magic” is merely money: a fortune in diamonds. But the playwright, too, has an international reach. Mercati has had scripts produced in the Netherlands and Australia, as well as here in Iowa.
Her other work includes children’s books and contributions to “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” and “Little Princess” feels of a piece with such material. It’s all about compassion and self-fulfillment and ends with an ecumenical prayer. The setup pits the youthful pluck of Sara against the adult heartlessness of Miss Minchin and her Seminary. The school’s losers grow stronger thanks to Sarah’s “pretends,” an “art of dreaming” that sustains her through riches and rags to a fortune in diamonds.
Even at her lowest, the girl wins the heart of one grownup, Miss Minchin’s sister Amelia, and it was these two who delivered the night’s best performances. Phoebe Smith was rubbery as Amelia, Amy Stanwood stony as Miss Minchin. Among the other adults, Greg Myers as Sarah’s soldier father was the weakest link; his goodbyes lacked feeling.
As for the children, you can’t hold Ankeny to the same standards as Nickelodeon. The set, after all, was a simple business of folding panels and curtained separators. One girl wore braces, and these gave her an inappropriate lisp (also, back around 1905, kids didn’t wear braces), but she got across the story’s sense of wonder. Two or three times the girls spoke to the air instead of each other, and there was a bit of mumbling, but everyone hit their blocks and kept things enjoyable. Delaney Rafdal showed spunk as Lottie, and Joy Mielke, as Lavinia, made a formidable meanie.
More serious problems had to do with dramatic structure. Granted, Mercati is working with someone else’s plot, but she indulged in repetition early (two flute solos?) and rushed through climax. Still, this show depends on its Sarah, ultimately, and seventh grader Ellyana Williams indeed took us on a journey: now heartbroken with face shrunk, now wide-eyed and wishing on a star.
Overheard in the Lobby: Brendan Dunphy, who brought a series of seven Irish plays to Des Moines, will be back in December with “Macbeth.” CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.