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Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2008

A Gentle Touch

Theater Review

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   First Stage's adaptation of Lois Lowry's Gossamer begins with a waif-like girl engaged in a battle of wills with her unyielding mentor, her unquenchable curiosity gently butting against her elder's limited reserve of patience. It's an appropriate beginning for a play that is essentially all about the battle of wills between the spirited ingeniousness of youth and the wisdom of old age, the forces of light and darkness, and between a young boy's suppressed feelings of shame and his burgeoning sense of self-worth.

  The play is set within the margins of wakefulness and sleep, inhabited by Dream-Givers, who harvest happy memories and turn them into dreams. Their enemies, the Sinisteeds, prey on people's fears and plague them with nightmares. An angry young boy reeling from years of neglect and abuse becomes the focal point of the struggle between the two forces. Rescued from his home by a social worker, the boy is placed in the care of an elderly woman. Gradually, under the watchful eye of his guardian by day and the young Dream-Giver by night, the boy's sense of shame and desertion slowly dissipates.

  Jeff Frank's direction and the play's cast ably convey both the gravity and lightness of Lowry's tale. Stylized snatches of dreams faintly illuminate the murky solidity of the waking world. The weary wisdom of the dream-world elders, played by Mark Metcalf and Richard Halverson, offsets the youthful resilience of their young apprentice, Littlest, played by Clarise White. Flora Coker plays the troubled boy's guardian with a sympathy lacking in condescension, while Richard Heim conveys the caustic armor enshrouding the young boy.

  Bruce Brockman's set design is spare but evocative. The denizens of the dream world inhabit subterranean pockets set within the stage floor. However, it's Jason Fassl's lighting that best conveys the ephemeral spirit of the dream world, bathing the stage in a dappled, watery glow. Deft use of spot lighting conveys supernatural exchanges between humans and Dream-Givers. The production's only extraneous element is the use of puppets. The marionettes operated by the Dream-Givers when engaging with humans are an unnecessary distraction. However, this is a minor foible in a play that manages to gently convey weighty themes to its young audience.

  Through Oct. 5 at the Marcus Center's Todd Wehr Theater.