Sydney Crumbleholme is maturing. Not only is she physically more mature than the impressive young acting prodigy I fondly recall from the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's Anne of Green Gables four years ago, she's also much more skilled as an actress - and that "much more" is particularly impressive considering that Crumbleholme's previous work was astounding, particularly for her age. In her return to the title role of Playcrafters' current production, Anne of Avonlea, Crumbleholme shows distinct growth as an actress, showcasing knacks for nuance and subtlety. She alone is worth the money and time spent seeing the show.
Yet she isn't alone. So much worked so well in Donna Weeks' original endeavor that the director was wise to bring back several of her 2008 cast members for this sequel. And while I would say playwright Joseph Robinette's script descends into silliness, especially relative to the first play (and especially regarding the parrot that's a little more fluent in human speech than I think parrots are capable of being), Weeks' latest executes the story's charm perfectly, with a fluid pace appropriate to the simpler lifestyle of early-1900s Avonlea on Canada's Prince Edward Island.
Anne of Avonlea continues the story of the girl who seems to me to be the Canadian Laura Ingalls Wilder. Here, Anne has graduated school and has her sights set on a college scholarship. However, a health problem with her adopted mother, Marilla, changes those plans, forcing Anne to stay home and attempt to raise enough money, as a schoolteacher, to prevent Green Gables from being sold.
Like Weeks' 2008 production, this piece features many notable performances, with 26 actors - all of them deserving accolades I don't have space enough to give - taking the stage throughout the evening. Playing the younger Anne in flashback, Katie Moore channels the precociousness and confidence that marked Crumbleholme's performance four years ago. Cayte Rivera tackles no less than three roles, and manages to make them so distinct that I had to check the program to be sure it was the same actress in each. Anna Tunnicliff, another performance prodigy I first noticed on the Playcrafters stage (in 2009's The Children's Hour) and haven't seen a weak showing from since, is under-utilitzed given her remarkable talent, but leaves her mark with the few minutes she's on stage. (The same is true of Pat Flaherty - one of the most impressive actors in the Quad Cities - whose minutes in the spotlight here I could probably count on one hand.) And Ami Leichsenring's chief strength is the effortlessness in her portrayal of Anne's best friend, Diana Barry.
Karen Decker easily holds her own opposite Crumbleholme, her Marilla still possessing that motherly authority edged with loving patience, wisdom, and subtlety that made her, in the same role, a much welcome addition to 2008's cast. However, not even she can prevent Ben Klocke from stealing scenes. As Davy Keith, one of the twins that Marilla and Anne take into their home for a spell, Klocke outdoes his fellow actors with his explosive delivery and humorous bravado. Decker's Marilla describes Davy as a demon, and she's right, although Klocke's moxie makes it hard not to adore this little devil of a child. Yet Decker and Klocke also share beautiful chemistry, particularly when Davy describes a conversation he had with his mother on the day before her death. The scene is dripping with tenderness, and the connection between the two actors is so strong that it's hard not to love both of them through their love for each other.
I could also go on and on about Weeks' graceful staging, and the multitude of moments that had me smiling from ear to ear. There are the hints of humor - hints about to bust out in full force - behind every line Alec Peterson delivers as Diana's love interest Fred Wright. There's the realism of costume designer Michelle Heaton's wardrobe choice for Anne, as if it were a dress actually purchased in an early-1900s store rather than a fitted costume created for the run of a show. Sara Laufer's lighting effects shift between scenes with a grace similar to Weeks' overall effort. And I can't forget first-grader Xavier Potts' Paul Irving, a student of Anne's whose pint-sized presence is completely endearing. Oh, and Noah Kelly's brat of a student, Anthony Pye, whose sweet shift to a respect for Anne deserves a mention. If only I weren't inching up on my word-limit, I'd also applaud ... pretty much everything about Saturday night's performance of Anne of Avonlea.
For tickets and information, call (309)762-0330 or visit Playcrafters.com.