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Monday, November 18, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Few Theatrical Sparks In `Nancy And Plum'

"Nancy and Plum"; adapted by Chad Henry from the book by Betty MacDonald. Produced by Seattle Children's Theatre at the Poncho Theatre; through Jan. 19, 1992. Information: 633-4567. -------------------------------

The long, successful collaboration between writer-composer Chad Henry and director Linda Hartzell ranges from "Angry Housewives" and "Little Lulu" to their recent, remarkable Japanese/American production, "Labor of Love," and their work regularly has been distinguished by honest sentiment, giddy hilarity and show-bizzy song and dance.

"Nancy and Plum," the newest Henry-Hartzell collaboration, is a rather chilly piece, with little hilarity and only incidental singing and dancing. Alas.

Henry is a skilled theatrical craftsman who is experienced at adapting books for the stage, and Hartzell has proved herself constitutionally incapable of mounting a less than accomplished production.

But for all that, their stage adaptation of Betty MacDonald's book, "Nancy and Plum," strikes only a few real theatrical sparks. And that's a surprise, coming from a duo noted for their ability to ignite warm, entertaining theatrical bonfires.

I haven't read MacDonald's book, but in Henry's adaptation it comes off as a not particularly vivid example of the holiday-season dark-to-light, chill-to-warmth narrative genre best exemplified by Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."

The story begins on Thanksgiving Eve in 1920 at a cold, bleak

boarding house run by an imperious, unkind and menacing woman named Mrs. Monday. Among the children virtually imprisoned there are two sisters, Nancy and Pamela (Plum) Remsen, who were orphaned when their parents were killed in a train wreck two years before. They are now 8 and 10 years old - and miserable.

The plucky pair regularly get in trouble with Mrs. Monday, who punishes them by denying them dinner - scorched oatmeal and prunes! - for days at a time, confining them in their attic room and whipping them with a leather strap.

The play tells how the sisters take off on their own, have a series of adventures and discover that not all adults are as mean as Mrs. Monday. And, naturally, they live happily ever after.

The Seattle Children's Theatre production has been designed handsomely and imaginatively by Bill Forrester (set), Catherine Meacham Hunt (costumes), Patty Mathieu (lights) and Michael Holten (sound). And as is usual in SCT productions, the acting ranges from good to excellent.

The show's most vivid presence is Mary Machala, who snarls her way through the role of the dreadful Mrs. Monday, usually dressed in evil black and wearing a black wig that looks as it if were borrowed from Snow White's wicked stepmother. This is a happy example of successful casting against type, because in past years and on other stages, Machala's impish humor has delighted many Seattle playgoers.

All the children in the show are played by adult actors. The concept works just fine, because the actors are effective.

Especially notable, of course, are Lyssa Browne as Nancy and Anne Christianson as Plum. As Mrs. Monday's spoiled niece, Marybelle, Peggy O'Connell, an expert comic actor, comes close to stealing every scene she's in.

Howie Seago is also appealing as the mute Tom, who helps the sisters and communicates through sign language. Robert Barnett and Mary Irey play other good folks, farmer Campbell and his wife.

SCT's "Nancy and Plum" has its heart in the right place, but its serious narrative demands apparently preclude its kicking up its heels more actively.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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