FOUND A PEANUT
Blueprint Theatre Group
at Chicago Actors Project
Whether the national obsession with the 1960s is due more to nostalgia or curiosity (for those of us too young to remember much), the focus, not surprisingly, has been on the turbulent latter part of the decade, which gave birth to hippiedom and the culture of youth that is still evident today. Looking at all the major magazines' commemorative issues, the TV shows and commercials, it is almost easy to forget that life existed before the Beatles' U.S. tour in 1964. In truth, of course, life did exist, only in that early Age of Camelot it wore a face of innocence that is almost unimaginable today.
In 1962, this innocence both peaked and began its decline. While Kennedy was taking active steps to help a country recovering from the paranoia of McCarthyism and John Glenn became the first American in orbit, it was evident that America was holding on to a sense of romanticism that was as much a part of its legacy as it was a falsely projected and much hoped for ideal. That same year, the U.S. established its first military command in South Vietnam. Within a year, war and assassinations would scar the nation, forcing it to grow into its time. Like it or not, the country was about to hit adolescence and lose whatever true trappings of childhood innocence it had managed to hold on to.
In Found a Peanut, Blueprint Theatre Group's testimony to this unavoidable coming-of-age, author Donald Margulies draws a parallel between country and individual with the story of eight children coming of age. In casting the roles of these soon-to-be teenagers with adult actors, Blueprint seems to walk an easy path. In fact, this device could easily fall flat; most adults can't remember exactly what childhood was like and are unable to give up the cynicism that so often comes with age. In this case, however, under the accomplished direction of Ralph Flores, it works, serving to demonstrate the oft-overlooked similarities between children, who are both naive and corrupt, and the adults they become.
The story focuses on a circle of friends, aged 5 to 14, on their last day of summer vacation. For most of the show, the older children predictably do the most damage to the utopian group; the younger children simply adopt the adultlike bad behavior of their elders. It comes as no surprise that although no adults are seen onstage, they are shown to be careless and cold. The effects of parents divorcing and a mother who abruptly begins to work (arming her children with only a key on a string around the neck) aren't really so different from those of a government leading its citizens into foreign battlegrounds, forcing its "children" into a premature adulthood. As Margulies defines it, loss of innocence equals loss of trust. Certainly a turning point in the thinking of many Americans who watched their country dragged into the ravages of the Vietnam war was the jarring realization that governmental promises were false.
This show also serves as a reminder to adults who have forgotten how complex the relationships of childhood can be. Richard Ladd's 11-year-old Mike, the center of his circle of friends, is a good kid in the clean-cut but still hip enough to be popular sense. He looks after his younger sister and her friend, five-year-old Little Earl, who is so cute even the older bullies can't resist tickling him, and Jeffery Smolowitz, the class reject who just wants to belong. Due to the absence of Little Earl's older brother, Jay, an almost mythic leader who the kids know could solve any problem if only he were around (much the way another "Jay," JFK, was perceived), it is Mike who decides if and when to hold a meeting (to discuss the all-important question of how to spend the last day of summer vacation), Mike who mourns a recently deceased old neighbor and a dead baby bird, and Mike who ultimately betrays the trust of the group. This betrayal forces the set to face up to more adult moral issues like right and wrong and rightful possession. In a time of life when Mom and Dad are the highest authorities, Mike introduces an issue that "has nothing to do with mothers." When those you trust desert you, the powers of trust and betrayal alike are thrust into your own hands.
Aside from the successfully regressed ensemble, the production's strongest point is the lack of any "guess we're growing up" statement from the characters. It is in the air and on their faces but thankfully not in the lines. This ommission by Margulies, which is regretfully written in by so many other coming-of-age authors, brings up the most important issue of growing up: you don't need to, and most frequently can't, recognize the process at the time for it to happen. Who in '62 knew of the assassinations that would rock the country? Who really knew at that early stage what would happen in Vietnam? What kid can pinpoint a spot in time and say, "This is when I grow up"? Who can say, at the onset, that next year won't mirror this one?
Flores has put together an impressive ensemble, most of whom manage to portray "real" children (as opposed to adult interpretations of them). Ladd and Keith G. Miller, who plays 12-year-old Scott, a friendly con man who thinks he can hold the reins of the group until he is put to the test and fails, do the best job of acting like children without acting childish. Lenny Grossman as the too-cute Little Earl, keeper of plastic dinosaurs and a whole bunch of hurt over his parents' divorce, also shines.
I couldn't help wondering, though, what happened to these kids. We see the beginning of their slide into adulthood but we can't see how they weather the transformation. Children don't think about the ramifications of their actions; adults and leaders must. Governments and parents alike, Found a Peanut seems to say, do well to follow the cautions of Margulies and the words of Stephen Sondheim from his musical Into the Woods: "Careful the spells you cast, not just on children. Sometimes the spell may last past what you can see and turn against you."