A new spin in Hilberry’s ‘Charlotte’s Web’

Photo by Jillian Zylinski

Laura Heikkinen (left) of Livonia plays Fern and Vanessa Sawson of Royal Oak portrays Wilbur the Pig in the Hilberry Theatre’s summer family production of “Charlotte’s Web.”

By Sue Suchyta
The Hilberry summer family theater production of “Charlotte’s Web” is an enthusiastically and well-performed treat for families. It is also a wonderful way to introduce live theater to children experiencing a stageplay for the first time.

Tickets are available through July 8 and seeing the show is a great way to beat the heat – at least for audiences.

Based on the E.B. White story, dramatized by Joseph Robinette, “Charlotte’s Web” is a story of friendship, love and loss in a rural American setting during the Great Depression.

When young Fern Arable pleads with her father to spare the runt of a litter of pigs, she accepts the responsibility for bottle-feeding Wilbur the pig, who soon grows big and moves into her uncle’s barn.

However, while small size once put Wilbur at risk, his bountiful proportions now destine him for the dinner table. That’s where Charlotte the spider drops in to spin a web praising the pig.

Suburban children unfamiliar with the origin of pork chops should be forewarned about the nature of livestock on a farm, otherwise they will find the foretelling of Wilbur’s potential demise to be quite a murderous and scary situation.

The six-member acting ensemble, which includes two undergraduate actors from the Bonstelle and four graduate student actors from the Hilberry, perform more than 15 roles, from farm animals to colorful human characters. Along the way all except Wilbur and Charlotte the spider have numerous costume changes.

Hilberry company member Carollette Phillips of Detroit is marvelous as Charlotte the spider. Inside sources say she has to counteract her fear of heights each time she moves around the upper level of the barn-inspired set.

Hilberry actressVanessa Sawson of Royal Oak is enthusiastic as Wilbur, who is truly “some pig.” She, along with the rest of the company, must wear a one piece animal costume that looks like a toddler’s footed blanket sleeper. However, Sawson must wear hers for the entire show, and hardly ever leaves the stage.

Insiders report that under the hot stage lights, even with the air conditioning running, the animal costumes leave the actors uncomfortably hot and dripping wet with sweat. Sawson has little opportunity to rehydrate backstage during the one-hour run of the show.

It also would have been interesting to see Wilbur “grow” with the use of a little costume padding similar to the pillows women use to try on maternity clothes early in a pregnancy.

The other four actors, who change back and forth from animals to humans, must go from their animal “jammies” to people clothes multiple times. Since the costumes were selected for the summer show, it is surprising that the costume designer did not take company comfort into account in their design.

It is also difficult to tell the sheep from the geese, since both costumes are white. The geese need something more suggestive of feathers than fringe.

Period authenticity also suffers: Fern’s shorts are way too short for the thirties, and she wears one summer outfit for the entire show, despite the season. The farmhand wears a modern-looking transparent green plastic poncho instead of a period slicker, and the fairgoers seemed dressed for the fifties and sixties instead of the thirties.

Graduate company actress Samantha Rosentrater of Geneva, Ala., who broke her ankle onstage during the Hilberry’s season-capping production of “The Cider House Rules” is cursed with six characters and non-stop costume changes. Wearing an inappropriately named “walking cast” the dedicated and talented thespian uses a vintage wheelchair to play the narrator, gander, and the president of the fair, crutches to portray a newspaper reporter, and she actually hops on stage on one foot in a blanket sleeper to play Wilbur’s porcine competition at the local fair.

In addition to her onstage mobility challenges she has rapid costume changes to manage while unable to put much weight on her left leg.

Undergraduate actress Laura Heikkinen of Livonia, who plays a delightful Fern, also plays the goose.

Alexander Schott of White Lake, also an undergraduate actor, alternates between Fern’s father, Templeton the rat and Lurby the farmhand. He was so hot his goatee wouldn’t stay on as the show progressed.

Graduate company actor Dave Toomey was fun and likeable as both Fern’s Uncle Homer and her brother Avery. He also has to serve time in a sweaty blanket sleeper as a sheep. However, when he ad-libs as a fairgoer he would be wise to leave the “cool” comments in the wings and look for more vintage remarks like “swell.”

Curtis Green’s set design is versatile, nostalgic and creative. He uses colorful upper-level silhouette screens as well as drop down webs to convey Charlotte’s original “webcasts.” He also captures the rustic simplicity of a rural barn during the Great Depression era.

Sound designer Tyler Ezell delivers a very realistic thunderstorm, as well as “popping” firework sounds.

Director Jesse Merz would be wise to stop Templeton the rat from tossing candy to the children in the house after the rat’s “food bender” night at the fair. The kids instinctively scrambled for the candy, and some lost the ability to concentrate on the rest of the show, searching the floor instead for errant treats. The mad scramble is also an accident waiting to happen.

However, the bubble machine is an enchanting and whimsical touch to represent the wind-blown dispersion of Charlotte’s many spider progeny.

The show will run on the main stage of the Hilberry at 10:30 a.m. select weekdays – which are ideal times for summer day camps. Remaining performances are Thursday and Friday, and July 5 to 8 on the main stage. The show runs for one hour without an intermission.

The Hilberry Theatre is at 4743 Cass at Hancock on the campus of Wayne State University in Detroit.

Tickets are $5 for children and $8 for adults. For more information, call the box office at (313) 577-2972 or go to www.hilberry.com.