Whether it’s a baby doll, a stuffed animal or even a G.I. Joe action figure, children tend to care for their favorite toys in a way that mirrors how their parents and guardians treat them. In “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,” the title character, a spoiled china rabbit, is ungrateful to his young owner, Abilene, who nevertheless adores him. After falling overboard from an ocean liner, Edward goes on an adventure to discover goodness, humility and love.
A 2006 award-winning novel by Kate DiCamillo, the story has been transformed into a show set that will be on the Imagination Stage in Bethesda through Oct. 30. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful adaptation of a wonderful, wonderful book that will stay with you,” said Janet Stanford, the group’s artistic director who is also directing the play.
For Stanford, the story ranks up there with beloved children’s classics. “I honestly think that this book is in the same realm as “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Velveteen Rabbit,” she said, “and yet it has a more modern feel to it. … I have no doubt that this book is a modern classic, that it will be around for many years and that people will have it as part of their reference point growing up.”
Whereas many “children’s writers focus on stories that are fun or have silly characters,” Stanford observed that DiCamillo is more serious. “Here’s a writer who is tackling the subject of love, which is a difficult thing to talk to your children about (even though) it is incredibly central to hopefully every child’s early life. Parents feel extraordinary love for their children and children learn to love from their parents and from their families.”
Edward does not have a stable history. Over the years, he has had multiple owners, including a homeless man and a girl with tuberculosis, and has found himself in locations including the bottom of the ocean and a garbage pile. “Living through this story and seeing the leading character survive these difficulties is a way of using our imagination to build emotional resilience,” Stanford said.
Casting began in the spring, followed by about a month of rehearsals. Stanford is pleased with the four “phenomenal” actors who are playing about 20 characters. “That’s part of the fun of the play … while we are telling a story that is challenging, we are doing it in a very stylized way where the actor will change a hat and his or her voice and suddenly is someone different.” The actors also provide sound effects–seagulls, crows, and storms.
Cast member Tia Shearer plays eight characters including Abilene. “It’s a dream,” she said. “When an actor gets to (play multiple roles), it really gets you back to the heart of what acting is, which is playing pretend …When I am up there being a dog and an angry man and a little girl in love with this doll, all of these things aren’t exactly me, but they are pieces of me. So I get to play with all these different pieces of me on the stage and flesh them out as much as possible.”
This is Shearer’s fifth production for Imagination Stage. “I love working here,” she said. “This was the first theater I worked in when I moved to D.C. six years ago, so it’s a special place for me.” She had roles in Imagination Stage’s “The Night Fairy,” “Bunnicula” and “The Wind in the Willows.”
Shearer never considered acting until 10th grade when she needed one more elective and her friend Becky suggested theater. “It was like falling in love,” she recalled. “I did my first monologue (from Neil Simon’s “Star Spangled Girl”) and that was it. I loved it. Becky was right! …It was so delicious to be inhabiting a story in front of other people.” Yes, it was terrifying, she confessed, and “I still get scared … but then all that energy turns to joy on the stage.”
While “The Miraculous Journey” is geared toward third- through fifth-graders, Shearer has been telling her friends that don’t have children to see the play because it speaks to children and adults. “Every one of us (in the cast) is deeply in love with this bunny,” she said. “We bring him out in the beginning and it’s quite a moment to introduce him to everyone and that is lovely, but as the play goes on and he gathers more experience, you love him more.”
In the play, the grandmother tells Abilene a tale about a princess that never learned to love. “That’s really what Edward Tulane’s journey is about; he learns what that story means,” Stanford said. “What the grandmother says is ‘How can there be a happy ending if there is no love?’ That is really the theme of the whole play: If we don’t love one another and even allow ourselves to be hurt from time to time and if we don’t keep loving, then we won’t have a happy ending because love is absolutely crucial to ultimate happiness and fulfilment in life.”
Stanford acknowledged that “it sounds like a heavy message for third- through fifth-graders, but I always find when we do post-show discussions, children get as much of the story as they are developmentally able to comprehend–and I’ve heard extraordinarily profound things from a 5-year-old–so I have no doubt our audience will understand the story.”
For information, call 301-961-6060 or visit http://imaginationstage.org. For tickets, call the box office, 301-280-1660.