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THEATER REVIEW: Charlotte's Web

The Web of Life: Chas. Stage gets a children's story about death just right

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Charlotte's Web
Presented by Charleston Stage
Jan. 23-24, 7 p.m.; Jan. 25, 3 p.m.
$15-$19
Memminger Auditorium
56 Beaufain St.
(843) 577-7183
www.charlestonstage.com

On Saturday night, I had the pleasure of sitting between three young children at the theater, and I say that with none of the usual sarcasm. I point this out, because most "children's theater" I've witnessed has been awful, as if the prospect of a young audience grants people a special license to suck, so long as they do so with oh-so-cute theatrical smiles. So perhaps I approached Charleston Stage's Charlotte's Web with modest expectations.

But let's be clear: This Charlotte's Web isn't just good for children's theater — it's an enjoyable, charming, even genuinely emotional piece of work. And judging by the three children nearest me, it was also a critical success.

Reason No. 1? Charleston Stage resident actor Viveka Chandrasekaran. She shines in the role of Charlotte the spider. Playing the role of a friendly spider seems natural to her, and her exotic beauty and poise gives this play an emotional heart. Her warmth is essential, because it allows the rest of the cast to play the show as comedy, but it's her ability to express both Charlotte's love and restraint that gives her characterization such resonance.

Sonny Kong does a nice job playing a piglet, which is probably no easy task for a grown man, but the big laughs were generally reserved for Michael Lasris (Lervy, farmer Homer Zuckerman's hired hand) and Andy McCain (Farmer John Arable). Lasris' Lervy is practically a homage to the greatly underrated absurdist 1960s sitcom Green Acres, borrowing the near-whistling speech patterns of the huckster Mister Haney and the overstated physical movements of Eb the hired hand. The younger set won't catch that link, but their parents will generally be seated right next to them. The set design and staging was also a pleasant surprise. With no curtain and one set serving as two barns as well as a county fair, director Marybeth Clark keeps the pace lively via simple, inventive stagecraft. And when the lighting and sound suggested a spring thunderstorm, the pre-schooler next to me looked around in awe.

And finally, there's E.B. White's story itself, because for all the many things it addresses, it is largely about death. American parents tend to be over-protective on this score, though this hardly does their children any favors. Charlotte's calm acceptance of her impending death defines her, but it also offers young children a healthy way to think about the subject.

Congratulations to Charleston Stage for getting that very right.

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