Friday, April 20, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater Review

"Addy: An American Girl Story" | Girl's touching journey to freedom

Seattle Times theater critic

On stage

"Addy: An American Girl Story," by Cheryl L. West, Fridays-Sundays through June 10, Seattle Children's Theatre, Seattle Center; $20-$32 (206-441-3322 or

By a stroke of synchronicity, two worthy plays about the costs and rewards of freedom are playing in Seattle currently. One is August Wilson's ruminative "Gem of the Ocean" at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

The other is "Addy: An American Girl Story," a vivid Seattle Children's Theatre world premiere aimed at young viewers — but also powerful for adults.

One of the best new plays SCT has debuted in recent seasons, "Addy" is based on Connie Porter's engaging books about a young 19th-century African-American girl, which are part of the popular "American Girl" historical-novel series.

History plays for kids, on subjects as tricky as American slavery, can be cautious to the point of stodginess, or ludicrously melodramatic.

Not "Addy," thanks to a gripping dramatization by Seattle playwright Cheryl L. West and a top-notch production staged by SCT artistic head Linda Hartzell. It's an engrossing, moving tale — which may require a supply of Kleenex at hand.

We first meet 9-year-old Addy Walker (played with remarkable effectiveness by an excellent adult actor, Myxolydia Tyler) during the Civil War, when she and her family are still slaves on a Southern plantation.

Soon, however, the loving clan splits up and takes to the road. As her father (Lance Spencer McQueen) is sold off to another master, and her brother, Sam (Damion Rochester), runs away to join the Union forces, Addy and her mother (Demene Hall) travel the Underground Railroad to Philadelphia.

Once there, however, the cultural shock is profound. The urban pace of Philadelphia (even in the 1860s!) is so much faster than Addy's rural life. And she misses Sam so much, she holds imaginary conversations with him.

The freedom Addy and her mother gain is marred by their poverty and the Northern-style racism that persists on Philadelphia streets.

There are great discoveries too, however. Bright Addy learns to read, with the tutelage of a caring teacher (Rachel Pate). She makes a new friend, Sarah (the feisty Felicia Vonshell Loud). And ultimately, her family is reunited.

I insert that plot-spoiler because the upbeat ending will mean a lot to some children who see "Addy," which the theater recommends for age 8 and older. Before that resolution arrives, though, West's script doesn't flinch at or sanitize the harsh realities Addy faces, or the sad feelings they engender. (There's a comic obstacle also: A goody-two-shoes classmate Addy idealizes for a while.)

But everything in "Addy" is handled with sensitivity and a brisk theatricality that rarely flags. With intermission, the show runs close to two hours, but the young audience during a recent school matinee of the show was raptly attentive throughout.

The most predictable parts of West's script are the early plantation scenes, complete with bullwhip-cracking slave master. But the play soon hits its stride, with the new life of a young protagonist who is greatly sympathetic — but not without her own flaws.

Though the script and most of the performances are laudable, the set design by Carey Wong is an equal factor in the success of "Addy."

Wong brings us into Addy's reality with fascinating photo-projections of real Philadelphia streets and buildings. And the interiors he has designed — including the dress shop where Addy and her mother find work — are like beautiful dollhouses come to life.

Rick Paulsen's lighting complements Wong's outstanding work. And the costumes of Melanie Taylor Burgess — which range from ragged garments to hoop-skirted gowns — are an utter delight as well.

Misha Berson:

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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