“The Borrowers” a series of classic children’s novels by Mary Norton, published primarily through the decade of the 1950’s, has been adapted for the stage by Charles Way, and in this Seattle Children’s Theatre production it is brought to glorious, enchanting life. The quality of this production in every aspect, from the fully rounded performances of the actors to the truly splendid scenic design by Carey Wong, the beautiful costumes by Deane Middleton, evocative lighting by Rick Paulson and the magical puppets by Annett Mateo, is professional theater at its best. Rita Giomi has directed the performace impeccibly, but the real achievement is greater than the sum of these impressive parts. The real achievement of “The Borrowers” is the way it enables a young audience the gift of transporting them into the imaginary, fantastical and startlingly recognizable world of theatrical illusion.
The story tells of the relationship between tiny people who live beneath the floorboards and subsist on things they “borrow” from the big people who live above them. It is charming and filled with the pleasures of a warm and funny family, the Clocks. When the irrepressible young borrower girl, Arrietty, is accidently seen one day by a human boy, it leads to his uncovering of their neat little home, an assault by the nasty Mrs. Driver that forces them to escape from the house into the open fields, and the breathtaking discovery of all that is the world “outside”.
In staging this story the young audience is asked from the very beginning to make an enormous imaginary leap, to recognize that the action which is taking place on the floor of the side stage in one scale is also taking place in the borrowers home beneath that floor, in an entirely different scale. When the boy plunges a screwdriver between the floorboards, we see an enormous screwdriver come through the Clock’s ceiling. With the acceptance of that theatrical conceit, children are also granted passage into a reality where everything familiar is suddenly rediscovered, where a raven towers over the brave little people, where a field mouse becomes game the size of an elk, where one side of a pair of scissors becomes a great sword, and where a shoe can provide shelter from a rainstorm for an entire family. We are also brought to an understanding that the scale of everything of real importance to people has no relation to the size of those people. That’s a lot for any show to accomplish for a young audience, and especially while telling a story that plays like a simple adventure, a gentle comedy, the making of exciting friendships that get you through difficult circumstances.
On the human side of this story, Rio Codda plays the Boy, who is visiting from India while recovering from rheumatic fever, as an earnest, gentle and accepting child whose initial response to discovering the borrowers is to help them get more things to furnish their home. That is hardly the response of Mrs. Driver, played with hysterical over-reaction by Zoaunne LeRoy. She is the one who immediately decides the floor and walls need to be fumigated and the “pests” driven out. That is what requires the Clock family to flee through the heating vents and to leave their home behind forever.
We understand just how much leaving that home means because of how well we get to know the family who lives there. Pod, the admirable and responsible father is played with just the right balance of practicality and light-heartedness by Ian Bell. The wonderful, pure of heart mother, Homily, the veteran actress Marianne Owen, is just fussy enough to let us know she really does want things to be right, and just adaptable enough that we know she will do whatever is necessary to make them right. Finally, the young girl Arrietty is given a near perfect performance by Emily Chisholm. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a purer expression of joy and discovery and freedom than when she first finds herself outside the house, out in the field that is all the world. It is in that broader world that she discovers another borrower, an untidy but resourceful lad named Spiller. Chris Ensweiler plays that role with a blend of humility and bravery that makes the little guy quite a large figure. He also appears in a few other roles that display more of his versatility and skill.
This city is so fortunate to have a theatre like Seattle Children’s Theatre. I have been bringing my daughters to productions here throughout their childhood, from the time their ages were in single digits. My oldest, now 18, attended this production with me. She tells me she wants to be a Shakespearean actor. We’ll see where that all goes, but what I do know is that both of my girls have no problem stepping into the imaginary world of the stage, no problem making make-believe into a reality that has something to do with them. “The Borrowers” was as good a children’s theatre production as you could find anywhere. What was happening to those children seated around me on Sunday afternoon was the uncovering of a hidden world filled with human experience, miraculous discovery and pure theatre magic. That life will never be hidden from them again.
PICTURED ABOVE: Emily Chisholm and Rio Codda
PHOTO BY: Chris Bennion