Writing — and in any many cases, not writing — a book can be a dramatic experience for the author. Creative blocks, doubts, backtracks, revisions, helpful and not-so-helpful criticism can stymie the process, but encouragement and terrifying but necessary leaps of faith can buoy it along. Most of this conflict occurs internally, so it is not often the subject of a stage drama.
But the for/word company's original play Little Book features one famous writer's struggle to write a sophisticated children's book.
Using a unique creative process, for/word uses the historical facts — letters, essays, memoirs, poetry and fiction — of its central characters and blends them into an unconventional but nonetheless fascinating imaginative exploration of their lives. In this case, the audience is treated to a fact-based imagining of the making of E.B. White's classic children's tale Stuart Little.
Written by co-artistic director Jennifer Schlueter, who also co-directs the play with John Schmor, the 75 minute, intermission-less play features Chris Roche as White; Christina Ritter (for/word's other co-artistic director) as his wife, Katharine; and Patti Heying as New York librarian Anne Carroll Moore.
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Brad Steinmetz's simple but lush set design creates a space where the characters lives are separate but connected by books, which inhabit spaces and most important, a center table, which all the characters share at various times.
The show is billed as a comedy, and the small cast mines the script for laughs, many of which are inside jokes best enjoyed by literary types. E.B. and Katherine, former editor of The New Yorker, have fun slinging punctuation and witty phrasings at each other, turning to the Oxford English Dictionary to settle disputes.
But it is the dramatic, simmering conflict simmering and the surprising directions it takes us that make the show enjoyable.
Roche and Ritter are at home in their roles and cultivate their marital conflicts gently, deftly but with palpable tension. Ritter is particularly interesting as Katharine because her guarded, removed, overly polished veneer makes one wonder whether she is going to undermine her husband's creativity with her speeches about semicolons.
For the greater part of the show, Katharine seems the cold, austere alternative to the show's other female lead, Anne, the woman who pioneered library access for children. Before her tenure, only older teenage boys could enjoy the library. Moore changed all that, inviting even the smallest child to take part in what she called children's "first independent act of citizenship."
If Katharine is the snobby, elite editor, Moore is the grandmotherly, bookish type.
Heying's portrayal of Moore is enchanting, particularly in a dialogue with one of her own books' characters, which she eccentrically carries around in doll form.
E.B. seems to be enchanted by her, too, intellectually. As we see Roche's E.B. furiously penning letters to her and depending on her encouragement to keep writing, there is noticeable dramatic tension between the two women in his life.
Kudos to Schlueter for a script in which two female conflicting female characters are intellectual and artistic giants rather than mere romantic interests and for giving the audience a rare view of the external forces that shape the interior experience of writing. Book lovers and writers will especially enjoy this play.