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Theater reviews: Women and Wallace, The Velveteen Rabbit 

At the latest Chaos Ensemble production at Duke Energy Theatre, the company lived up to its motto "Theatre for Youth by Youth" more than ever before. For Jonathan Marc Sherman's autobiographical drama, Women and Wallace, was written when the playwright was a mere 18. Twenty-three years after it was first produced, Wallace stands as a pointed, poignant, and sometimes comical chronicle of how a mother's suicide, when her son is in second grade, affects the boy's personality and his subsequent relations with women through his freshman year in college.

Trouble is, the compelling chronicle comes packaged in a lame frame. At the start of the evening, Wallace Kirkman tosses a tomato at a virginal girl after declaring "I love you" and at the end of the evening, he drops the tomato instead. Now Sherman (who hasn't abandoned play writing) has had more than enough time to reconsider and revise what he created so whimsically and perversely, to make his lame frame more coherent or simply to scrap it for something sturdier and better-integrated into the meat of his story.

Playing our hero, Jake Laxer didn't exactly inject fresh charm or significance into the frame. Quite the contrary, he threw that tomato as if he had dreaded doing it for months -- as if he were acting under the most extreme duress. At odd times through the rest of the evening, Laxer's inexplicable lack of confidence would resurface, creating momentary separations between Laxer and Wallace until the Providence High School student snapped back into character. Chaos director James Yost was more successful with the other title characters -- eight young women in all. These Prov High students remained in character whether they were in dialogue with Wallace or seated at the margins of the stage, actively watching.

Elder women, Wallace's mother and grandma, were special treats. We saw PJ Boyajian apportioning just the right amount of maternal domesticity to Mother. Then in the aftermath of the suicide, Olivia Dalzell found the right path to Grandmother's abundant kindliness. Curiously, there's only one juvenile in the story, but Kacie Roller made Victoria memorable for her combination of avid interest in Wallace tempered by the slightest shyness. Next youngest was Sarah, the high school valedictorian portrayed by Amanda Berkowitz, the most complex and disastrous of Wallace's relationships. Berkowitz captured her ambivalence beautifully.

The most exotic of Sherman's characters is undoubtedly Lili, a dancing college senior who teaches Wallace about sex before handing him down to her younger sister, Nina. Dana Story packed all the alluring worldliness you could wish into Lili, contrasting perfectly with the chaste naivete that Madi Claus bestowed on Nina. Sherman's take on psychiatry -- verbose, predictable, and useless -- didn't break any new ground for playwrights, and Katherine Daly gave Wallace's Psychiatrist a prim professionalism that didn't sink into lampoon. More useful was Wendy, a bar pickup that Wallace cheats on Sarah with, given a light patina of boozy wantonness by Savannah Hamilton.

After confessing his transgression to Sarah -- and experiencing the upshot of his honesty รข " Wallace doesn't repeat his mistake with Nina after bedding her older sister. Where he learned not to throw tomatoes at your lady love is anybody's guess.

LOCAL PRODUCTIONS of The Velveteen Rabbit by Children's Theatre of Charlotte now stretch back so far that the costumes for the latest version at ImaginOn are as ancient and worn as the title character. Indeed, credit for costume design is dimly assigned to the CTC Costume Shop!

Not to worry, the acting onstage is in good -- mostly Tarradiddle -- hands. Stephen Seay plays The Boy with impish energy and mischief, while Leslie Ann Giles plays the cherished toy with Chaplinesque simplicity, appropriately stiff with a wink of fun. Darlene Parker may seem Tarradiddle typecast by now as the Nana, but she blossoms forth late in the action as Nursery Magic, fulfilling the Velveteen's lifelong wish to be real. Our newest Tarradiddler, Nick Kern, plays one nursery toy and one of the real rabbits who mocks our protagonist. Kern also takes good care of his role as the Old Skin Horse, an heirloom passed down from director Steven Ivey, who still owns that role. Newcomer Caleb Sigmon pretty much splits duties with Kern, halving the narrator chores, prancing about as one of the rabbits, and coming to life as one of the toys after Nana exits the Boy's bedroom. Kern chugs and Sigmon squeaks, if you need further ID.

If you or your child hasn't experienced The Velveteen Rabbit before, either onstage or as the ultimate bedtime book, hurry over to the Wachovia Playhouse as fast as your legs can carry you, child in tow. If you have experienced the story before, you'll be happy to find that it's one of those rare gems whose value and emotional power increase with each telling.

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