Why is it that animated movies — which are traditionally thought of as children's entertainment — are commonly marketed to adults as well, while theater often draws a hard line between grown-up and younger shows? It is possible for a play to appeal to both, as evidenced by Dallas Children's Theater's latest, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.
Based on the book by Kate DiCamillo, adapted by Dwayne Hartford, and deftly staged by director Artie Olaisen, the two-hour show tells of a self-centered and vain china rabbit, who's bought as a toy for a wealthy young girl, Abilene. The rabbit, Edward, cares not for his little mistress' devotion and constantly wishes for better clothes, more interesting activities, and a finer social circle. He's accidentally tossed overboard while Abilene and her family are traveling to England and begins an adventure that takes him through several different locations and temporary owners.
It's pretty dark stuff, actually. Edward gets existential while at the bottom of the ocean, and he witnesses human cruelty regularly as he bounces across the U.S. The play is set during the Depression, and a common theme is Edward's companions looking for work, food, and a way to survive. There's one scene with a dog that younger children especially might find upsetting.
But throughout DCT's production, there's a thread of hope. Johnny Lee tenderly voices Edward, giving him a vocal journey from pompous wannabe aristocrat to grounded and thankful soul who's capable of love. There are several Edwards (created by Mark W. Vital for The Coterie Theater in Kansas City, Missouri) to show the rabbit's physical transformations, and the cast moves him with great puppetry skill.
A core company of four other actors (Georgia Clinton, Sonny Franks, Haulston Mann, and Steph Garrett) switch characters instantly, creating a world rich with regional dialects, ages, and social castes. Garrett, especially, uses her physicality to embody Abilene, then an old woman, then the dog, and others.
It's emotionally exhausting to crest these highs and sink to these lows with Edward, as his self-discovery is applicable to not only children learning empathy and societal manners but adults who could use a refresher. Reclassify Edward Tulane as an experimental puppet play with an adult company, and you'd never know the difference.
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane runs through April 10 at Dallas Children's Theater.