Charlotte’s Web is terrific, terrific, terrific!

I have a soft spot for the book Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. Not only is it my favorite childhood book and part of the reason I’m so fascinated by spiders (I may or may not even have a spider tattoo), I was also very close to being named Fern after the book’s loveable farm girl.

So let me preface this post by saying that I really wanted to like the Children’s Theatre Company production of Charlotte’s Web, —running through October 27—because I so love the book. I really wanted my 6-year-old son, Adam, to like it, too. This was our first “date”—just he and I—and I wanted it to be associated with a good memory. A lot was riding on this performance.

Adapted by Joseph Robinette and directed by Greg Banks, the play not only lived up to my lofty expectations, it blew them right out of the water. I loved everything about it, even the subtle changes to the original story.

The opening scene—set within the simple yet effective interior of a barn—depicts farmers Martha and John Arable discussing their newest litter of pigs, and how John is going to “do away with” the runt (a weak pig won’t make much bacon). When their young daughter Fern puts two and two together, she’s outraged by the injustice of it all.

“The pig couldn’t help being born small, could it? If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?” she challenges her dad.  They finally come to an agreement that Fern can keep the pig, if only temporarily. Fern names the pig Wilbur and grows attached to him, bottle-feeding him like a baby, until he is sold to the Zuckerman’s, who own a farm down the road.

Emma Thvedt plays Fern in Charlotte’s Web

 When kids are cast in main roles, you hope they don’t do that cheesy “over-acting” thing that kids sometimes do (to be fair, some adults do it, too). I could tell within the first few minutes that these actors knew how to get into character without the over-animated expressions and over-pronounced lines. Wilbur, played by Ethan Davenport, is a believable little pig—squeals, grunts, tail shakes, and all, and Fern, played by Emma Thvedt, is perfect as the innocent farm girl who treats Wilbur as her beloved pet.

I was also happily surprised by the amount of comic relief in this play. When I read the book, I never really thought of the barnyard animals as being funny, but the goose and the gander had phenomenal comedic timing, and Templeton the rat, played by Reed Sigmund, nearly stole the show with his sarcastic comments, tattered suit, beer belly, stumbling gait, and exaggerated movements. He reminded me of a cross between Chris Farley, Jack Nicholson, and Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice. The adults especially loved him—this self-centered, sneering, sarcastic rat who looked out only for himself until the very end of the play, when he finally redeemed himself and did the right thing for the right reason.

The real talent in this performance, though, was Joanna Harmon as Charlotte, the beautiful, kind, and charming spider who befriends Wilbur when he feels lost and scared in the Zuckerman’s big, cold barn. She moves as gracefully as a trained dancer from her web in the rafters to the top of Wilbur’s pen, suspended by harnesses for almost the entire show. You start to care for this clever two-legged black spider (another six legs would have been a distraction), even though she admits to eating bugs and “loving blood.” She takes it as her personal mission to save Wilbur from being made into bacon, and she does so by devising a plan to write words about Wilbur in her delicate web—first Humble, then Some Pig, Radiant, and Terrific, attracting local and national attention to the Zuckerman’s farm. During these scenes, it really does look like Charlotte is weaving a masterpiece in her giant web, thread by painstaking thread.

Charlotte's Web

Joanna Harmon plays Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web

Every detail seemed to be considered in making this play as realistic as possible when dealing with talking animals and arachnids, one of the many things I loved about it (that and the truly stellar acting).

After the short intermission, the set was slightly transformed into the county fair—just a few extra props and “fair”-like decorations to make it feel like a different space. Homer Zuckerman had told Fern that if Wilbur could win a blue ribbon at the fair, his life would be spared. Understandably, there was a lot of pressure for Wilbur to take home that blue ribbon.

One memorable scene came when Dean Holt, who played both the down-to-earth farmer John Arable (Fern’s dad) and Uncle the Pig—Wilbur’s main competition at the fair—came strutting onto the stage. Holt was perfect as the egocentric Uncle, cracking corny jokes and flexing his Arnold Schwarzenegger-like body builder muscles. His cocky exclamations of “Boom!” (like he was dynamite?) made his character even more obnoxious. It was only a bit part, but it was a fun addition to the story. I think it helped the kids to understand, too, that even though Wilbur wasn’t as big and strong as Uncle, he was definitely more likeable, mainly because he wasn’t wrapped up in his own looks.

The importance of being humble was just one of several life lessons sprinkled throughout the play—others were the importance of being a good friend (when you love someone, you put his or her needs in front of your own), the importance of being brave—even when you’re scared (Charlotte was a great example of this when she calmly accepted her own death), and love, loss, and rebirth as part of the cycle of life.

Perhaps Charlotte said it best when she said to Wilbur, “You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”