Captain Underpants may come and go, but the Boxcar Children are here to stay. The resilient siblings of Gertrude Chandler Warner's literary franchise surfaced at the Theatre of Youth on Friday evening, reminding us why they've endured more than six decades after their literary debut.
Published in 1942, the first in the "The Boxcar Children" series was followed by a whopping 115 installments. TOY's agreeably earnest production takes place at the outset of the saga, introducing us to the Alden kids before they evolve into junior sleuths.
At face value, the premise is a downer. Four Depression-era siblings are orphaned during a boating accident. Fearful that they'll be separated, they flee from authorities, taking shelter in a boxcar and rummaging for supplies in the town dump.
In other words, "Junie B. Jones" this ain't. And yet, generations of young readers have found themselves gripped by the Aldens' plight. Watching the play, it occurred to me why: While the scenario gives rise to children's worst fears -- parental abandonment -- it also fuels their wildest fantasies -- namely, making their way on their own.
In that regard, the Aldens fare exceedingly well. Henry (Ryan Berkun) serves as the breadwinner, picking up odd jobs so the four can eat. Jessie (Kaila-Rose Proulx) assumes the role of Mother Hen, keeping her younger siblings on task. The younger girl, Violet (Madeline Williams), is the cook; Benny (Max Marko), the resident inventor.
It's not often you see a show anchored by child actors, even at TOY. It's less often you see four actors under 16 holding their own through a drama of such somber overtones. Although the momentum flags here and there, each delivers an assured performance.
With good reason, "The Boxcar Children" is recommended for children 7 and older. Beyond themes that may be difficult for younger viewers to grasp, it's a long show, clocking in at two hours with intermission.
Kenneth Shaw's wood set is simple and stark, accented by shadowy lights that convey the era's hardscrabble gloom. It's one of the most effective sets I've seen in recent TOY productions, unfettered by flash or gimmicks.
The same could be said of the four principal actors, who perform with heartwarming sincerity. Much like their literary counterparts -- whose mantra is "We stick together like glue!" -- they are the glue of this show.