After 27 years of reviewing, I'm as confident in my own judgments as anyone in my profession when I walk into a theater. Yet there are times, like after the current U.S. premiere of Spelling 2-5-5 at ImaginOn, when I must defer to my wife Sue's expertise. The protagonist in Jennifer Overton's play, the preadolescent Simon, is easy enough to grasp, but it takes only a few milliseconds to realize that his 10-year-old younger brother Jake isn't your run-of-the-mill Batman nerd.
He's autistic, with a set of twitches, sensitivities and peculiarities that aren't designed to play well with others — mixed with some amazing gifts. Simon is tasked with helping Jake navigate his daily routine, performing household chores like making Jake's smoothies (because the sound of the blender is too loud) and reading Jake's favorite comic books to him over and over, even though he has them all memorized. Simon not only feels burdened by Jake, he feels neglected and underappreciated by his mom, a strict English teacher who doesn't bend her rules.
When there's an announcement at school of auditions for a reality TV show, So You Think You Can Spell, Simon thinks his chance to shine has finally come. He even attracts the attention of his dream girl, Laurie Lake, with his spelling prowess as she helps him to prep. Ah, but Laurie's ability to sniff out talent is greater than Simon's or his mom's. After getting to know Jake briefly, she learns that he can spell any word he sees — or hears — spelled out using the ordinal numbers that correspond with the letters of the alphabet. Example: bee is 2-5-5. Once again, Simon feels like his difficult, demanding little brother is going to upstage him.
At shows like this or The Boys Next Door, I rely on my wife — and her 25 years' experience teaching special needs children — to tell me whether a playwright has accurately depicted such challenged characters as Jake and whether actors are getting it right. In both cases, the Children's Theatre of Charlotte version passes the Sue Test. Aces it, to be perfectly frank.
Make no mistake, because this play was originally produced in St. Catherines, Ontario, two years ago, this U.S. premiere is truly a Children's Theatre creation, Americanized by Overton and specially reset in Charlotte for this production. So the public buildings that Jake can sketch from memory are Charlotte and Mecklenburg County buildings, and the dream to be fulfilled by appearing on So You Think You Can Spell is the chance to travel to D.C. and sketch the Smithsonian Institute, his all-time favorite.
Credit goes to Children's Theatre literary director Mark Sutton for targeting this script early last year and initiating talks with Overton to Americanize and Charlottize it. Stage director Dennis Delamar has worked brilliantly with the Tarradiddle Players, Children's Theatre's traveling troupe, to craft this 55-minute gem that was absolutely sparkling by the time I caught the road-tested production's 49th performance in a unique "sensory friendly" edition on Sunday at ImaginOn's Wells Fargo Playhouse.
Tim Parati turns the necessity of touring with this production into a resounding virtue with his DC Comics set design. Not only are the flats divided into comic book panels for the bulk of the scenes at home and at school, but additional scenes are also revealed when these panels flip like comic book pages. Precise placements by lighting designer Eric Winkenwerder reward the readers in the audience by zeroing in on key areas of the text to orient us.
Scott Miller hasn't gone the lovable Dustin Hoffman or Tom Hanks route in his remarkably true-to-life portrayal, so Jake remains quite a handful for Simon from beginning to end, slightly more manageable than Fudge in Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, another Children's Theatre classic with a similar message. As a result, Stephen Seay's tribulations are more complex and nuanced than the perennially perturbed Peter, Fudge's elder brother.
Toward the end, our hero's geniality and forbearance give out, and Seay gives us two marvelous explosions — a meltdown when he learns his brother's super spelling powers and a blowup later at the TV audition, one of the best dramatic and satiric scenes I've seen anywhere in the past year. Leslie Ann Giles, as TV director Jimbo, is another reason why this scene is so delectable, caring absolutely nothing about reality or spelling and crassly insensitive to special needs and children in general.
In between Simon's tantrums — of course, Jake also has a couple of lulus — we get the most meaningful episode in the show as Simon's mom metes out his punishment. Tanya McClellan strikes the perfect balance of calmness and sternness as Mom grounds Simon for a month, makes him surrender his treasured electronics, yet acknowledges that she has entrusted him with a heavy load. Mom's voluminous five-part punishment somehow underscores her high regard and expectations for her eldest son.
A wonderful, illuminating show for young and old. We can be proud that a theater piece of such high quality is circulating among our schools, educating our children and (maybe more importantly) our educators.