The light-dappled woods of Curtis Trout's scenic design for Lexington Children's Theatre's production of Where the Red Fern Grows hearkens back to a simpler but harder time. Set during the Great Depression, Red Fern is a classic coming of age tale about how a country boy and his family's lives are forever changed because of two hound dogs, Old Dan and Little Ann.
Based on the book by Wilson Rawls and adapted for the stage by Brian Guehring, the tear-jerker has become a rite of passage for generations of young readers and viewers, depending on the format. I still remember how much I cried after the first and only time I saw the movie. And yes, I cried again during the performance I saw, 30 years later.
Director Vivian Snipes brings the story to life with requisite nostalgic warmth. The woods, the family's rustic cabin, the sense of connection and belonging that Billy, the story's protagonist, feels with his family and later, his dogs, beautifully highlights the riches in Billy's life, despite their financial hardships.
Georgia native Michael McClain easily captures the rural charm of Billy, and excels at conveying Billy's determination and patience as he works odd jobs to save money for two coon hounds, a process that takes more than two years. McClain also excels at relating Billy's maturation. By having a big responsibility tending to his dogs, facing harsh weather and wild animals, and earning money for his family via the many raccoon skins his dogs capture, Billy grows from a boy to a young man.
Stephen Fala and Abigail Swanson have the difficult task of combining acting with puppetry, a task they excel at. Using their faces to convey emotions that puppets cannot, the pair's howls and whimpers and approximations of dog "language" were easy to follow and drew some hearty laughs from a theater full of children. The mutual affection that the pups felt for one another was palpable and moving. The final scene where the pair, sans puppets, flit playfully about the stage, suggesting the spirits of Old Dan and Little Ann romping together in heaven (or perhaps it was Billy recalling the good times, depending on your interpretation) caught me by surprise with its stirring joyfulness.
Adam Luckey injects color and vivacity in his role as Billy's grandfather, who encourages Billy's coon hunting in ways Billy's father (John Code) doesn't. Code and his stage wife, Jess Cummins as Billy's "Ma," the pair's understated performances punctuate the strength and connectedness of Billy's family.
Snipes employs some clever staging techniques — actors without key roles in scenes often portray trees in the woods Billy romps in with his dogs, underscoring the family's harmony with nature.
The only drawback to this production is that sometimes I found it difficult to hear when dialogue overlaped with the pre-recorded voice narration. This didn't happen often, but a few times I had to really stretch to hear or missed words altogether.
The play's heart-stirring finale is touching and yes, tearful. But these are good tears. Sad, but beautiful, too.