"Where are we going, daddy?" my 4-year-old daughter Lydia piped up from the back seat.
Her mother had gotten out in front of the Allendale Theatre to wrangle tickets while we circled the block for a parking space.
"We're going to see 'Charlotte's Web,' in a theater," I answered, adding enthusiasm like a pushy telemarketer. "Won't that be neat?"
"Oh, yes," she replied amiably. "We have that movie at home."
She could not see my face, darkened with dread, as I wondered what I was thinking, taking my daughter to the theater for the first time.
This was a child of the video age, after all, who grew up on a steady diet of "Blue's Clues," "Little Bear" and the Disney pantheon. A child who formed such a passionate bond with the animated worlds and characters who greeted her from the television screen that at times, tears slipped from the corners of her eyes because she didn't even want to blink.
Such tube-induced trances concerned me, but not enough to prevent me from using the television as video Valium, providing parents with a break from the demands of an energetic child. Now, as we walked hand in hand into the theater, I wondered how dear the price would become for sitting an antsy, cable-conditioned 4-year-old amid a crowd of strangers.
As we joined her mother, Katherine, and found our seats, Lydia's eyes were wide with the sights of the Allendale. As usual for a Theatre of Youth production, most of the seats were occupied with boys and girls, most a few years older.
As the play began, I braced myself for the squirming to begin. The production, adapted from the E.B. White children's classic, had young actors playing its barnyard characters by wheeling around colorful models of the animals. Wilbur the pig's mouth didn't move, and neither did his legs.
From Templeton the rat and the Old Sheep to the Goose and Gander, none were as literally depicted as their cartoon versions. The actors manipulating the animal models were responsible for supplying not only their voice, but mannerisms and movement, requiring the viewer to mentally transfer their portrayals onto the inanimate animal figures.
Uh-oh, I groaned to myself. To my grown-up eyes, the gap between the exquisitely detailed fantasy land of animated television and this sparse set where adults wheeled animal figures around, was too far to ask her attention to leap.
As the play worked into the first act, where Fern the farm girl falls in love with the tiny piglet and saves his life, Lydia complained that she could not see over the tall woman in front of her. She settled into her new perch on my lap.
Then, as subtly as stars appear after sunset, her imagination seemed to grow to embrace the new setting of the theater.
As seconds ticked by, the darkened set, awaiting the dawn and discovery of Charlotte's web, showed me a side of my daughter I had rarely seen: suspense.
"When is the morning going to come?" she whispered.
As Wilbur the pig capered across the stage (pushed by his human counterpart) she laughed with surprised delight.
As action shifted to the county fair to determine whether Wilbur would be prized or be bacon, Lydia pressed her hands to her mouth in excitement. "He just has to win that blue ribbon," she whispered, echoing an actor.
The physical reality of the actors, their voices and movements captivated her in a powerful way, different from the slack-limbed passivity I'd become familiar with. Whatever imagery might have been lost to sketchy staging and humans standing in for animals was more than made up by the power of her imagination.
Perhaps the temporal nature of the entertainment had an impact, too. She's only 4, but Lydia knew this was not a videotape that, when it ended, would rewind anew.
Which did she like better, the video or the theater? Her reaction had telegraphed the answer: "This one is more fun," she said.
"Charlotte's Web" made me pause, to reconsider the value of theater and other mind-stretching excursions in my daughter's formative years. Sure, as a parent I'd thought about the rewards she might reap from an array of experiences. But how often were those decisions shaped, consciously or not, by the calculus of time and effort?
Experiences like the Theater of Youth show will never be as convenient as video, the drive-through chicken nuggets of children's entertainment.
But perhaps convenience, with its numbing, passive sameness, has its own costs. Theater, and other experiences that break from the established routine to broaden her experiences, surely nourish her imagination in ways no television could.
As Lydia ooooohed and aaaaahed at the "fireworks" effects that lit up the theater near the play's end, I selfishly thought of how she will outgrow her father's lap.
But comfort followed. Time yet remains, I thought, to try to make sure she never outgrows the capacity to gasp in wonder.