Sydney Crumbleholme, a freshman at Moline High School, plays the title character in the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's current Anne of Green Gables, and I doubt there has been a better, more inspiring piece of casting on area stages in all of 2008.
Based on L.M. Montgomery's beloved novel, director Donna Weeks' production is pretty outstanding across the board - beautifully presented, continually hilarious, and so sincere and touching that I found myself welling up not just in the show's final scenes, but on the drive home.
Yet I'm not sure enough can be said about Crumbleholme's portrayal. Enacting Anne of Green Gables' heroine from a gawky, talkative schoolgirl of 11 to a poised, radiant young woman of 16, this young performer might've been whom Montgomery had in mind when the author invented her Anne Shirley a full century ago; Crumbleholme, here, is exhilaratingly close to perfect.
From her opening scene, which finds Anne rehearsing a tentative greeting to the man who'll become her adoptive father (Greg Bouljon's Matthew Cuthbert), it's clear that we'll be treated to something far more untraditional, and more welcome, than the sight of a cute kid playing a cute kid; under Crumbleholme's care, Anne is a complex, wholly thought-out creation. Delivering her lines with a dreamy romanticism that can give way, in a moment's notice, to a clipped forthrightness (she's terrifically funny when bemoaning the tragedy of her red hair and freckles), Crumbleholme comes off as both dazed and fantastically assured. Her loquacious Anne is breathlessly composed, and also just eccentric enough to be a little off-putting; you don't need intimate knowledge of Montgomery's book to laugh with empathy when the timid Matthew blanches at the earnestness (and candidness) of this unusual orphan girl.
Matthew gazes at Anne as if he can't quite believe what he's seeing, and as the play progresses, it's easy to watch Crumbleholme's thrilling invention with much the same expression. Anne's adoration of Matthew and his stoic sister, Marilla (Karen Decker), her anger at the hateful rudeness of town busybody Rachel Lynde (Marie Tschopp), her misery at the momentary loss of "bosom friend" Diana Barry (the exceptionally sweet Carli Talbott), her rivalry with boy-she-loves-to-hate Gilbert Blythe (Jacob Turner) - Crumbleholme plays her scenes, and the contrasting emotions within them, with unending variety and skill. (Playcrafters' Anne of Green Gables should be mandatory viewing for young actors wanting to understand the distinction between reading dialogue and feeling dialogue.)
And while it's entirely possible that Crumbleholme is "merely" preternaturally gifted, a goodly portion of the credit for this performance has to go to director Weeks, as she elicits wonderfully naturalistic portrayals from all of the show's youths. There are too many names - 16 of them, if I counted correctly - to do justice to here, but special mention must be made of Turner, delicately masking Gilbert's shyness with schoolyard bravado; the focused, fully in-character work of Michael Baker, Nick DeMink, and Courtney Hanson (who, on Friday, offered a first-rate ad lib after a necklace accidentally broke); Alyssa Castro and Meg Klocke, two faultless jump-rope-skippers; and kindergartener Madison Nees, adorable as Minnie May, and pulling off a truly convincing (and still adorable) coughing fit.
Weeks, whose staging is especially graceful and effective in the busy classroom sequence and the slow, mournful walk past a character's gravesite, elicits similar wonders among her adult actors. I've enjoyed Bouljon in numerous productions over the years, yet have never seen him as relaxed and likable as he is here; his voice occasionally cracking as if he's unused to using it, Bouljon's Matthew is utterly marvelous, a sweetheart of a father figure. Decker is so powerfully good as Marilla - so explosively funny and subtly moving - that even though she has more stage time than the show's other grown-ups, she's never around as often as you'd like.
Tschopp, as befits someone who is forever repeating others, squawks like a parrot to enjoyable effect. (Audience members well-versed in Mrs. Lynde's obnoxiousness laugh in anticipation of her routines.) And while the show's other post-pubescent roles are basically cameos, there are splendid characterizations by, among others, Nicholas C. Waldbusser's spectacularly aggrieved Mr. Phillips, Anastasiya Bauswell's endearing Miss Stacy, and, best of all, Lin Sullivan's Aunt Jospehine, who all but bursts with personality and authority. (Sullivan's biography reveals that it's been 14 years since her last stage appearance. Please, let's not wait that long for another.)
With its sharp script by Joseph Robinette and expert contributions by Playcrafters' design team (with Mary Bouljon's period costumes a particular treat), Anne of Green Gables is a thorough joy, and its standing ovation felt richly deserved. Certainly, one of my fellow attendees felt the same. A girl of about eight sitting two seats away from me, she vocalized her excitement all throughout the production, and at one point thanked her mom for bringing her along, saying, "This is even better than the computer!" It took all my willpower to avoid replying, "It absolutely is."
For tickets, call (309)762-0330.