Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s novel, A Wrinkle in Time, made its stage debut in 1990 at Chicago’s Lifeline Theatre, in an adaptation by James Sie. After a second production in 1998, the script is now being presented for the third time at Lifeline, with direction by Lifeline ensemble member Elise Kauzlaric. Fans of the novel should not get too excited, however; in spite of the excellent source material, the play disappoints.
A Wrinkle in Time is a quintessential children’s science fiction novel centering on Meg Murry, a math-loving misfit, and her younger brother Charles Wallace, who is unusually brilliant and has telepathic powers. When the children’s father goes missing, three strange women named Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which transport them through time and space to save him from his imprisonment by an evil disembodied brain called IT.
Even without the heavy Christian themes, the story is a strange one, but Sie’s adaptation and Kauzlaric’s direction push it into the territory of the downright bizarre. Much of the substance of the book lies in the characters’ narration, thoughts, and inner monologues, and Sie makes no attempt to recapture any of that onstage, instead boiling the plot down to its simplest elements and leaving the rest behind. The result is a story that is sparse and unsatisfying. All nuance of the book’s ideas and themes is lost, and the story becomes a schmaltzy battle between good and evil, devoid of any real substance. The play feels like a skit performed at the end of a week of vacation Bible camp, only with higher production values.
Meg’s character is significantly rewritten, and what in L’Engle’s text might be described a lack of self-confidence morphs into full-blown self-hatred and misdirected rage in Sie’s characterization. Her angsty, ranting dialogue more closely resembles that of the PTSD-ridden title character in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix than the Meg Murry readers are familiar with. The heroine becomes unsympathetic, and her anger at her father’s choices and the evil force that takes her brother captive holds no weight when something as simple as a question she dislikes provokes the same reaction as these high-stakes conflicts. Without a protagonist to latch onto, the audience is left adrift, with only Charles Wallace and Calvin left as poor substitutes for the actual heart of the story.
The casting appears to have been both race- and gender-blind, which may be the only element of this production worth praising. Unconventional choices like the energetic Javier Ferreira as Mrs. Who might have been delightful under other circumstances. Unfortunately, all of the actors aside from the young Davu Smith as Charles Wallace (a role also played by Trent Davis) appear to be the same age. This not only makes it difficult to suspend one’s disbelief as the supposedly grade school-aged Meg (Jamie Cahill) and Calvin (Glenn Obrero) interact with parents, teachers, and supernatural beings no older than they are, but it also obliterates the book’s themes about the dynamics between adults and children, since the characters almost all read as adults. It is impossible to comment any further on the performers; the actors may very well be talented, but it’s hard to tell when they’re trapped by so much wooden dialogue.
What really baffles the mind about this production, however, are the directing and design choices. The closest thing I’ve experienced to the overall aesthetic of the show is the episode of Friends in which, at the end of a play, Joey transforms into an alien in a glittering bodysuit and ascends to space via a ladder that drops from the ceiling. The way the ensemble represents inanimate objects like the forest, the transformation of Mrs. Whatsit into a dragon (or, more accurately, a man in a dress), the appearance of Aunt Beast, and, ultimately, all of the supernatural elements are all so bizarrely executed as to be comical. At one point, as Meg was hurtling through space toward the end of the show, a small group of audience members burst out giggling at the absurdity of the blocking. All I could think was, thank God I’m not the only one.
A Wrinkle in Time is a great book, and it is possible to believe it could be a great play, but Lifeline’s production is not it. Hampered by a poorly adapted script and an outlandish set of blocking and design decisions, the performance falls so short of the mark as not to be in view of it at all.
“I’m not sure what I was expecting,” the friend who accompanied me to the show said afterward, “but I know it wasn’t that.”
Location: Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave, Chicago
Dates: February 17 – April 9, 2017
Times: Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 4 p.m.
Tickets: Ticket prices are $40 for regular single tickets, $30 for active and retired military personnel (with ID), $30 for seniors, $20 for students (with ID), $20 for rush tickets (available half hour before show time, subject to availability), and $20 for previews. Group rate for 12 or more is available upon request. Tickets may be purchased at the Lifeline Theatre Box Office, 773.761.4477, or by visiting the Lifeline Theatre website.
Accessible Performances: The Saturday, Mar. 4, 4 p.m. performance will feature a pre-show touch tour of the set at 2:30 p.m. and live audio description for patrons who are blind or have low vision. The Saturday, Mar. 11, 4 p.m. performance will feature open captioning for patrons who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. For more information about Lifeline’s accessibility services, please contact Accessibility Coordinator Erica Foster at 773.761.4477 x703 or at [email protected]
All photos by Jackie Jasperson.