Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny Alden knew about unfortunate events long before Lemony Snicket came along.
The Alden orphans, or the Boxcar Children, are a kinder, gentler precursor to Snicket’s very popular book series, A Series of Unfortunate Events about Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire.
The Aldens were brought to literary life more than 60 years ago by author Gertrude Chandler Warner. They have been brought to the stage by playwright Barbara Field and the theater company, Chicago Playworks for Families and Young Audiences.
Running through March 11 at the Merle Reskin Theatre, 60 E. Balbo Ave., "The Boxcar Children" is a lovely 90 minutes for children who know these beloved books. I’m not sure it is as engaging for those who haven’t read the books, which follow the orphans as they set up house in a railroad boxcar and then eventually move into the home of their wealthy, long-lost grandfather.
My son and I, as well as my friend, her two sons and their friends, enjoyed the production. But of this crew, the ones who enjoyed it most were those who read the books—including me.
Field’s adaptation follows faithfully Warner’s book, which means it deals with poverty, destitution and a child’s perspective on the death of two parents. But all is handled gently—in the manner that dark issues were once dealt with. So, the story manages to avoid the nightmares and feed a kid’s daydream about surviving on their own without adults.
The talented cast did a wonderful job. I was particularly impressed with Dan Hale, who plays the youngest, Benny. OK, too often, men remind me of little boys but Hale, doing it intentionally, does a nice job without going over the top.
Still, the story is dated and needs to be set up for today’s audience. As I watched young Henry befriend and find a job with the local doctor after one brief exchange over the lawn mower, I thought of all the stranger danger lessons just flying out the window. Could you actually teach your child today to trust a young, unmarried doctor still living with his mother, who follows young boys into the woods?
Set in the Depression, this is a history lesson. It’s a time when $5 could buy milk, bread, apples, cheese and you still had a lot left over. It works very well when the play is woven into a classroom curriculum as is often the case with Chicago Playworks productions. Indeed, the company has written a great companion package for teachers.
(This venerable company is celebrating 80 years. It is a real treasure as well as the city’s oldest children’s theater.)
While this is recommended for ages 8 and up, if you have a Boxcar Children reader, you can go younger. Performances are 2 p.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m. Tuesday and Thursdays, with none on Feb. 4 and 28. Tickets are $8, call (312) 922-1999.