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84, Charing Cross Road/Arden

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84, CHARING CROSS ROAD

Northlight Theatre

ARDEN

Bailiwick Repertory

Can a story about a book buyer and a bookseller who become pen pals but never meet send much of an emotional charge? Yes. In its quiet, inferential way, Northlight Theatre's production of 84, Charing Cross Road strikes resonant chords of loss, regret, and happiness remembered. Though only occasionally Christmasy in any overt way, it's a perfect play for the holiday season--honestly sentimental, with a wry and bittersweet edge, and expertly performed here.

The play was adapted by James Roose-Evans from the anthologized letters of writer Helene Hanff and British bookseller Frank Doel, written between 1949 and 1969. Hanff, a Jew from Philadelphia, possesses a keen interest in British Catholicism; living in New York on a bare-bones budget in the years after World War II, trying to make it as a writer, she begins ordering from a shop in London works by poet-preacher John Donne and John Henry Cardinal Newman, and the fourth-century Vulgate Bible. Starved for conversation, and virtually tied to her typewriter, Hanff seems hardly ever to leave her fifth-floor walk-up except to mail yet another letter to London. Why go to a New York bookstore when she can have antiquarian volumes delivered to her doorstep? Fairly soon, the correspondence between Hanff and Doel, manager of the musty Marx and Company bookshop in Charing Cross Road, grows more conversational; when the gift-giving holidays approach, Hanff sends a package of meat to her new friend in heavily rationed England. The books and the meats keep crossing the Atlantic, the letters grow warmer (though it is clear that Doel is contentedly married, a fact Hanff accepts with uncomfortable ambivalence), and Hanff lays plans to visit London as soon as she can afford it.

But though Hanff does indeed grow more successful--thanks in part to a stint writing Ellery Queen mysteries for television--her trip to England continues to be delayed for one reason after another. Why Hanff puts off visiting is left unclear: it may truly be because other costs arise, or because she's secretly in love with Doel and doesn't want to open herself up to disappointment, or because she needs to have something to look forward to forever. When the time finally comes for Hanff to make her long-postponed journey, it is under conditions quite different, and much sadder, than she had ever anticipated.

If this were just a story about two bibliophiles babbling at each other across the Atlantic, 84, Charing Cross Road would be only a quaint intellectual entertainment with a limited audience. Certainly those who are bookishly inclined will feel right at home here; most of the dialogue (that is, the alternating monologues, as the characters speak aloud the letters they're writing) concerns the more arcane nooks and crannies of English literature. But what gives 84, Charing Cross Road its universal poignance is what's happening between the lines: the story of a person who puts aside something precious until it's too late to claim it, a story that sends a strong jolt of recognition through the viewer. Russell Vandenbroucke (with last-minute assistance from B.J. Jones) has directed the play with beautiful simplicity, finding plenty of activity to keep the stage interesting and to bring out the subtext under most of the letters. Michael Merritt's excellent set positions Hanff's apartment and Doel's shop, both with their walls packed with books, right next to each other, yet (in tandem with Linda Essig's tightly focused lighting) maintains a perfect sense of separation between the two locations and the people who inhabit them. Nan Zabriskie's costumes nicely complement the setting's strong sense of time and place.

By no means a showy piece, this is nonetheless an actor's showpiece. Peggy Roeder's Helene Hanff is tough but tender, a woman of vibrant mind but plain, low-keyed personal presence--absolutely believable as a writer whose head is churning with an energy only barely perceivable to the outside world. Greg Vinkler is marvelous as Doel--he displays the behavior of a professional bookworm but never lapses into crusty-eccentric mannerisms. Like most bookworms, Vinkler's Doel is prematurely middle-aged; Vinkler shows Doel growing more relaxed with himself as his physical age catches up to his mind over the play's 20 years (and his English accent is right on the mark). Among the other players, Celeste Williams radiates with passionate conviction as Doel's young assistant, not quite at home in her boss's musty world; and Lisa Dodson, usually a strong leading actress, makes a pair of remarkable supporting appearances as the bookshop's dumpy secretary and an extroverted American actress friend of Hanff's.

"That which I should have done I did not do," is the title of one of Ivan Albright's most powerful paintings, which shows a lone hand at a wreathed doorway. Expressing the same thought, 84, Charing Cross Road takes its audience into themselves, person by person, and lingers in the memory far more potently than many plays with more eventful story lines and more overtly ambitious intentions.

In Arden, too, the search for a rare book leads to friendship. This children's show by Darrell Miller and Alexander Wild concerns a young girl who travels into the mysterious forest of Arden after the evil hag who lives there steals the magic book that guides the girl's village. On her journey, the girl, Alyssa, encounters a handsome young protector, Tomias, and a brave elf named Avery. She'd better have friends, too: the evil forces marshaled by the thief include a vile creature named Pugnacious, who thrives on the sheer energy of human fear.

Sheer energy is in abundant supply in this entertaining effort at Bailiwick Repertory. The seven-person ensemble runs, hops, and rolls about the stage, impersonating a seemingly endless collection of monsters--complete with lots of scary and frequently gross sound effects--and enacting such confrontations as a fight with sticks and a game of "death-match ticktacktoe." The cast is good at audience interaction, too; in the show's main gimmick the viewers are invited to vote, by clapping, on what should happen at certain points in the story.

However, in true Chicago style, the "voting" itself is a bit of a cheat; the results (should Alyssa jump over or run through a patch of forest, for instance) are pretty much rigged in advance, and the voting opportunities too few and far between. Wild, who also directed the briskly paced piece, and Miller need to put on their thinking caps and come up with some choices that give the kids a real chance to get involved.

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