For the two seasons that Matt Stabile has taken the artistic helm of Florida Atlantic University’s Theatre Lab, he has begun with a Heckscher Theatre for Families production. In addition to introducing youngsters to live stage shows, these plays strive to appeal to adults as well, which is a tricky juggling act.
Bridging that gap with whimsical skill and more than a little conscious ambiguity is Suzan Zeder’s When She Had Wings, the tale of an aviation-obsessed 9-year-old girl named Beatrix – B for short – who may have discovered long-lost female pilot Amelia Earhart in B’s backyard airplane treehouse.
Although you will never convince B of it, the woman is more likely a recent refugee from the local senior center. Her identity remains a mystery and the woman’s inability to make anything other than bird sounds means she will not be much help in solving it.
Young theatergoers will have little difficulty identifying with B, a self-reliant adventurer and loner who yearns to break free of the earth’s gravity and soar. Doting over B is her father (Roderick Randle), whose other concern is his collection of garden gnomes. Absent without explanation is B’s mom, whose primary emphasis is sending her chubby daughter to “fat camp.”
Rounding out the cast are a couple of B’s imaginary friends, flight crew members who supply live sound effects and lively movement, further evidence of the creative potential of theater.
Age is a fluid quantity in Zeder’s play. For while B is steeped in the lore of Earhart, she conveniently lends a blind eye to the fact that the missing aviatrix would be well over 100 if she were to somehow reappear today. And playing B is area actress Stephon Duncan, who manages a credible impression of being 9 going on 10.
Although Duncan is the play’s central focus, the performance magnet is Equity guest artist Barbara Sloan as A, the goony bird intruder whose avian qualities are amusing and persuasive. Setting the tone for the production are those two crew members – Daniel Llaca and Paul Curtis – particularly Curtis, who also composed the show’s score and plays it on instruments ranging from kazoo to autoharp.
Keeping up with the aural overload is scenic designer Michael McClain’s backyard set, oversaturated with color and offering young attention spans plenty of visual appeal.
Director Stabile ties all these disparate elements together into a lively package. If it seems to target tots more than adults, the latter willing to go along on the journey may find themselves soaring in flight, transported back to their childhood.
Heckscher Theatre’s schedule is skewed towards youngsters – 1,500 of whom will see When She Had Wings for free at matinees around Palm Beach County. Public performances are fewer, but they are available on weekends through Sept. 29.
WHEN SHE HAD WINGS, FAU Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall, Florida Atlantic University campus, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton. Through Sunday, Sept. 29. $20 for adults, children free with an adult admission, 561-297-6124.