Stage & Dance

Review: Children's Theatre's 'Old Jake's Skirts' is simple, warm

Michael Whitten plays Shoestring the hound dog, Old Jake's companion, in Lexington Children's Theatre's production.
Michael Whitten plays Shoestring the hound dog, Old Jake's companion, in Lexington Children's Theatre's production.

Not all gifts come wrapped in shiny paper and bows. Sometimes, help appears in the most unexpected ways. Take Old Jake's Skirts, for instance. What in the world would a crotchety old man who lives alone on a farm ever need with a trunk full of skirts? Quite a lot, it turns out.

They can soak up a heavy rain. They can be a blanket, or pillows, or patches for holes in your overalls.

Such is the premise of Lexington Children's Theatre's latest production, a José Cruz González adaptation of C. Anne Scott's book Old Jake's Skirts.

A rustic, rambling tale filled with folk music, Old Jake's Skirts' heartwarming message sort of creeps up on you, gentle-like.

About the only thing Old Jake likes besides his dog, Shoestring, is whittling, so Jerome Wills' woodcarving-inspired set design establishes the down-home tone of Jake's farm life.

Director Vivian Snipes' decision to use small wood-carved models to help tell parts of the story feels like a natural extension of Wills' set, as does the musical narration by Jim Short.

Wielding a guitar or banjo, Short keeps the ambling play rollicking along. It runs less than an hour, but Old Jake's Skirts is on country time, so it feels as if much more time has passed. Jake's radical transformation from an unfriendly loner to a shy, warm man with a tender spot for children is built slowly, organically, over the course of the show, and it's all because of a trunk full of skirts, which Jake discovers abandoned on the road as he is driving into town. No one ever claims the trunk, so Jake puts the skirts to use for himself, and one by one, events of his life begin to turn in his favor.

Matthew Bass's performance as Old Jake is tenderly wrought: Even at his most crotchety, there seems to be something more to Jake, some warmth beneath his crusty exterior.

Bass particularly plays well off of Michael Whitten, who as loyal hound Shoestring was perhaps the young crowd's favorite on opening day. Shoestring is an adorable puppet, and Whitten wields him with the kind of playful enthusiasm that makes children giggle and squeal.

Brianna Case helps with the narration, too, and she plays several characters, although the crowd's favorite by far was the pesky animals that try to steal Old Jake's crops. She is a dynamic performer, but she should project more during a scene in which Short's musical accompaniment is particularly loud; a few important lines were hard to decipher.

The ensemble also deserves praise for making complex blocking look deceptively simple. In fact, simplicity and just good old storytelling is what makes this play a heartwarming gem.