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Tuesday, March 7, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`The Midwife's Apprentice' is thoughtful but slow-moving

Seattle Times theater critic

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Theater review

"The Midwife's Apprentice" by Constance Congdon, adapted from a novel by Karen Cushman. Directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton. Friday-Sunday through April 8. $13.50- $20.50. 206-441-3322.

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When we first meet the young protagonist in the new Seattle Children's Theatre production, "The Midwife's Apprentice," she is sleeping on a dunghill.

That's how it was to be a homeless kid in England back in the Middle Ages, according to the popular Karen Cushman novel on which this world premiere play is closely based.

As an orphan in that era, you were literally a social discard, resting in whatever sorry place you could lay your head, and grubbing for whatever few stray crumbs of food and kindness you could seize upon.

The adolescent stray in "The Midwife's Apprentice" doesn't even carry a name other than the epithet "Brat."

But by the time her saga of self-discovery unwinds, she's gone from "Brat," to "Beetle," to the more dignified "Alyce." More crucially, she's found a calling and a home.

"The Midwife's Apprentice," which is aimed at youths ages nine and up, falls into a familiar category of children's theater that lightly blends history with social realism and a positive message about rising above hardship and gaining self-esteem. Seattle Children's Theatre has mined this vein often, and thoughtfully.

And the outcome is often similar to what "The Midwife's Apprentice" offers: a cogent, earnest outing that's educationally valid but dramatically rather bland and slow-moving.

That's not to say the two-hour show isn't full of incident. Or solidly performed by a skilled cast in Valerie Curtis-Newton's staging. That it is.

In the lead role, the excellent Sherryl Ray makes it easy to empathize with Alyce as she slowly gains self-confidence through assisting a penny-pinching, abrasive village midwife, Jane (portrayed with flinty command by Demene E. Hall).

Alyce also cleverly contrives a way to get back at the young villagers who taunt her, especially the snotty Grommet (Olga Sanchez) and dullard Jack (Timothy Hyland).

She comes to the aid of another young orphan (Luke D. Theofelis). And, while working for an innkeeper (Sharva Maynard), she teaches herself to read with the help of a kindly scholar (Eric Ray Anderson).

But the most vivid relationship in the play is Alyce's connection with a stray cat she befriends - a small but expressive stuffed figure (designed by Scott R. Gray) which is manipulated with great deftness by puppeteer Douglas N. Pasch. This added stroke of theatricality occasionally lifts the story into a less literal, more imaginative realm of storytelling that one wishes "The Midwife's Apprentice" would visit more often.

The performance sports a simple set by Robert Gardiner, artfully rustic costumes by Melanie Taylor Burgess, and some pleasing incidental music by Jim Ragland.

It also deals unsentimentally and straightforwardly with subjects that may be new to young viewers: the pain and complications of childbirth, the practice of folk medicine, the medieval preoccupation with witchcraft and devilry, the periodic abandonment and homelessness of children throughout history.

All these matters are handled with sensitivity. But parents should be prepared for further discussion.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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