The holidays so rarely produce Norman Rockwell moments. If the adjectives “soused,” “loud” and “chaotic” fit your family better than “rosy-cheeked” and “jolly,” here’s an opportunity to get everyone out of the house and maybe provoke some interesting discussion for all members of the family—the Arden’s entertaining and thoughtful world premiere of The Borrowers, adapted by Charles Way from Mary Norton’s series of children’s books about a really small family.
The Clocks are a 19th-century family of three who each stand around five inches tall. They live in tight quarters beneath the floorboards of the home of human-size Mrs. Driver (Jo Twiss, so nasty she makes Cruella de Ville look sweet). Except for their size, the Clocks are a fairly typical family unit—there’s father Pod (Scott Boulware), mother Homily (Catharine K. Slusar, in a performance worth the admission) and their 13-year-old daughter Arrietty (a spunky Bi Jean Ngo).
The title comes from the family’s practice of “borrowing” from their unwitting human housemates. With no possessions of their own, borrowers must secretly raid human homes for food and everything else, the most desirable items being furniture from a dollhouse on a shelf high up in human territory.
Kids’ theater tends to wear its morals on its sleeve, going for the obvious points about fairness, equality and kindness being good and cruelty, greed and theft being bad. Here, it’s a little more interesting. “We’re borrowing, not stealing,” explains Arrietty to a confused human—stealing is when one borrower borrows from another.
When it comes to children’s theater, many theaters mount mindless productions on a shoestring budget with inexperienced talent; the Arden isn’t afraid to ask a young audience to think. The borrowers, forced to live in hiding, can be seen as any disenfranchised or marginalized group; who knows, this might be one way to have a discussion about differences in culture and the right to self-determination with a 6-year-old.
After they’re discovered by Mrs. Driver and gardener Crampfurl (Steve Pacek, showing off his versatility in myriad roles), the Clocks are suddenly homeless, fending for themselves in the tall grass of the countryside. Capable hunter-gatherer Pod worries about being able to protect and provide for his family. Daughter Arrietty has an intrepid spirit and sees it as a chance to get out from under the floorboards; unlike her parents, she isn’t scared of humans, and while her eagerness for adventure gets her in trouble, she makes friends wherever she goes.
But Slusar as Homily delivers the most complex and satisfying portrayal. “Is there really nothing more to life than life?” she asks in response to Pod’s optimistic view that while they’ve lost their home, at least they’re alive. Philosophical, nurturing, introspective, self-deprecating and brave, Slusar’s Homily is a 19th-century feminist, a devoted housewife unafraid to voice her opinion. Her excellent performance is no surprise—she’s a Barrymore winner, and her presence in the cast is just one of the examples of the Arden’s investment. The production values are equal to that of the Arden’s adult shows, and they have an Obie-winning director in Whit Maclaughlin and the area’s hottest young musical-theater star in Pacek.
The designers are no less prestigious. The tiny likenesses of the actors that represent the Clock family when they’re interacting with humans were designed by Aaron Cromie, known for his wizardry in puppet design. The puppets don’t just look good, but effectively represent the disparity in size. MacLaughlin has tackled issues of scale in previous Arden productions (If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and The BFG) and he, Cromie, costume designer Rosemarie E. McKelvey and set designer Lewis Folden create an onstage environment that seems entirely believable.
Best known for his work as artistic director of alt-theater company New Paradise Laboratories, MacLaughlin understands his audience. He doesn’t hammer on the moral complexities of the Clocks’ predicament, but nor does he shy away from them. Way’s script likewise strikes a proper balance, so that the play can be enjoyed in different ways by children and adults. A family show that doesn’t leave anybody groaning or cranky is a rare gift; it’d be wise not to overlook this one.
Through Jan. 30. $16-$32. Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St. 215.922.1122. ardentheatre.org
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