Applewhites Reviews

Stephanie S. Tolan

Surviving the Applewhites!  Theatrical Reviews

It's a hit!  Click to read: Family’s story has makings of a classic and Premiere play fills stage with enjoyably eccentric characters

Family’s story has makings of a classic

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Margaret Quamme, for the Columbus Dispatch

The theatrical adaptation of Stephanie Tolan’s popular and award-winning middle-school novel Surviving the Applewhites, which had its world premiere Thursday night at Columbus Children’s Theatre, is so fresh that the paint is barely dry on it.

A few smudges need to be cleared up, but it’s exciting to see the first production of a work that clearly has the energy, intelligence and comic crispness to become a staple of children’s theater.

Applewhites has been adapted by Tolan and fellow children’s author Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia), who have preserved the main story line while jettisoning a few minor characters. At almost 2 1/2 hours, the play could be trimmed, but it flows well.

The one who must survive the Applewhites is Jake Semple (Aaron Capretta), a 13-year-old punk whose parents are in jail and who has been thrown out of every public school in Rhode Island. His desperate grandfather pleads with the homeschooling Applewhites of rural North Carolina to take him. When Jake joins their creative clan, he clashes immediately with the one self-disciplined member of the family, 12-yearold E.D. (Kristi Serbu).

Capretta’s acting is natural and relaxed, and he finds both the humor in Jake’s reactions to this unusual family and the potential sweetness beneath his forbidding exterior. Serbu is less sympathetic than she might be, partly because her character seems to be in a perpetual and overly dramatic snit.

Under William Goldsmith’s accomplished direction, the rest of the cast merges smoothly into an ensemble. Goldsmith allows the action to unfold at an unhurried pace, and he knows how to balance the efforts of a diverse group of actors, young and old. Even the potential scene-stealer, an adorable little boy (Nick Patrick) with a mouth in constant motion, never overwhelms the story or plays for cheap laughs.

Angela Barch finds much sly humor in the role of E.D.’s good-hearted but flaky Aunt Lucille, and John Feather quietly grounds the family in common sense as grandfather Zedediah. Tory Patten gives the small role of high-strung novelist and mother Sybil a comic twist, and Len Williams has fun with the role of self-absorbed father Randolph, who has taken on the task of directing a community-theater musical.

Carla Chaffin’s set nicely combines homeyness and creative chaos, and excerpts from The Sound of Music — the musical that the whole family eventually gets involved in producing — slyly comment on the action during scene changes.

The script has a few problems. The play occasionally stops dead for unnecessary soliloquies, and the device of having the actors say "blanketyblank" instead of using profanities, though cute at first, gets old. The character of Jeremy Bernstein (Don Frye), a young would-be magazine writer and TV producer who stops by for an interview and ends up staying for months, is so underdeveloped that it’s hard to know why he’s there.

But these are minor glitches in a satisfying production. The combination of Tolan’s freewheeling wit and Goldsmith’s warm recognition of the joys of even an imperfect family makes for a rewarding piece of theater.

November 1, 2006

Premiere play fills stage with enjoyably eccentric characters

Review by Dennis Thompson, Suburban News Theater Critic

Columbus Children’s Theatre is presenting the world premiere of Surviving the Applewhites by Stephanie Tolan and Katherine Paterson, a work based on the Newbery Honor-winning book by Tolan.

The play, commissioned by the troupe, is a work in progress and has had much input from the author during the rehearsal process.

The result, as seen now, looks fine. This is a delightful story with engaging and eccentric characters who are presented as real human beings, flaws and all.

Jake Semple is a wild, uncontrolled 13-year-old whose reputation precedes him. Rumor has it he was kicked out of every school in his home state, even burning down one of them. The only school that will take him in is the creative home school run by the Applewhite family.

The Applewhites are an artistic, unorganized, chaotic family, all except E.D., the young, smart girl who longs for order. All take to Jake, to one degree or another, and gradually he begins to find his way.

Director William Gold­smith has fashioned a strong, diverse cast that brings these characters to life.

Kristi Serbu is sharp and clear as E.D. She is the grounding force of all around her and does well both as the narrator and as a frustrated adolescent.

Aaron P. Capretta does not come off as that bad a kid early on as Jake. However, he shows enough that we see his transformation, first his connection with a dog, then people, then himself.

Len Williams is Randolph, the distracted father-theater director, who is just caring enough to buy into the family concept, but not so much as to interfere with his personal agenda. The character’s choices drive the second act, as his act of self-absorption first dashes hopes, then binds all together again.

Angela Barch is delightful as the kind-hearted yet scattered Lucille. It’s a charming role, a character who empties the trash because it’s “pulling down the energy of the room,” and it seems a part written for Barch. 

   Nine-year-old Nick Patrick is a wonder and an inexhaustible force of energy as the young Destiny Applewhite. He rattles off long passages of dialogue with incessant chatter that would have taxed many older actors.

Other strong performers are Kati Serbu as the dancing Cordelia, John Feather as the solid grandfather Zedediah, and Don Frye as Jeremy, a visitor who quickly fits in. In what often seems a Columbus Children’s Theatre staple, Cody Westbrook frolics around as Winston the dog.

This is a collection of fun, eccentric characters with multiple storylines that touch on a variety of human and societal issues. That sounds cumbersome, but it’s not.

We enjoy being with the group and are curious to see how they all work things out.


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