With his new play, The Color of Stars, Dwayne Hartford offers fulfilling, adult entertainment that doesn't pander to kids. Much as I did with Hartford's gorgeous adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities a few years ago, I found myself wondering whether children would even much like this emotional and vibrant drama, set in rural America during World War II.
They certainly appeared to, at the matinee I attended last weekend. A playhouse full of kids and adults sat rapt for Hartford's story about a 10-year-old boy who goes to live with his grandparents while his father serves in the Pacific and his mother goes to work in a shipyard. Also staying at Grandpa's farm is Felix, a government agent who's in town to scout out red oak trees, needed to build Navy minesweepers. Felix, a German-American, and Eddie become friends, but the townsfolk remain suspicious of this outsider, who may be looking for more than oak trees.
Hartford, the playwright in residence for the Tempe children's theater, comments on our contemporary attitudes about wartime America with literate dialogue and sad, sometimes confused characters. It's material that brings out the best in Graham Whitehead's intuitive direction and gives Childsplay's gifted ensemble plenty of room to emote.
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Debra K. Stevens gives a lovely, understated performance as Eddie's grandmother, Mabel, a woman who might have come off as a saintly dimwit in lesser hands. Katie McFadzen is less discreet but just as engaging as Mabel's sister, and the trio of men — Jon Gentry, D. Scott Withers, and Andrés Alcala — offer tense but emotionally controlled performances, each quite different and all three darkly brilliant.
In the company of these sterling players, Aaron Zweiback, who shares the role of Eddie with actor Sam Primack, shines brightest. He personifies the sadness of a young boy without gloominess, and youthful wisdom with no trace of precocity.
The production is extremely handsome, thanks to Robert Klingelhoefer's design of the stationary house set, both period-correct and cozy, and enveloped by a forest that acts as setting and character in Hartford's story. The house and trees are attractively lit by Paul Black, and Rebecca Akins' costumes are precisely what sturdy New England farm dwellers might wear.
While the huzzahs in Hartford's story aren't necessarily surprising, the language often is. Characters talk of "Krauts" and "Japs" without tidy apologies tacked on by the playwright, who trusts that his audience, no matter its age, will find the morals lesson in this engaging story about loyalty and war and the love of a good family.