Aug. 1 2012 12:00 AM

Riverwalk's 'Baby' teaches without preaching


Attempts to merge life lessons and entertainment typically result in punchline fodder like ABC Afterschool Specials and Tori Spelling Lifetime movies. That doesn’t happen in “Getting Near to Baby,” a simple and sincere story about children dealing with death, presented jointly by Riverwalk Theatre and Ele’s Place.

The script is a good choice to educate audiences about how children deal with grief. It is touching without being preachy and balances tragedy with appropriate humor.

Well-intentioned Aunt Patty (Teresa Hurd) and Uncle Hob (Michael Stewart) take in nieces Willa Jon (Grace Mary Hinkley) and Little Sister (Olivia Sowa) for the summer following the death of the girls´ younger sibling. As much as Patty wants to do the right thing and help their girls work through their grief, she also wants desperately to be invited into a local ladies’ society. She uses her position as guardian to the wayward children to sidle up to the president of the club, Lucy Wainwright (Angela Lett).

While Willa Jo and Little Sister try to bond with the nice but average kids next door, Patty pushes them instead to make nice with Lucy’s insufferably snobby daughter, Cynthia (Lillian Wilson-Daeschlein). As his wife stumbles between being an empathetic guardian and a wannabe socialite, the infinitely patient Hob plays peacemaker.

When plays feature child actors, reviewers often face the difficult choice of wounding fragile young egos or pulling punches and losing credibility.

This play presents a best-case scenario. Not only are the children in the cast terrific, they easily out-act their adult castmates. Forrest Colson, as 8-year-old neighbor Isaac Fingers, is adorable and energetic. While he sometimes delivers his lines too fast, most of his hilariously innocent but true comments about insincere adult behavior hit their marks.

Ellen Weise plays Liz Fingers, Isaac’s sister and the anti-Cynthia. Although Liz thinks Cynthia possesses all of the charm-school skills that she believes will help her become a model, Liz is naturally poised, smart and secure in herself. Weise, too, is self-assured, and plays Liz appropriately as an emerging beauty who still harbors some tomboy tendencies.

Sowa, as Little Sister, has the biggest challenge. She doesn’t speak, so she conveys thoughts through a made-up sign language and expresses emotions through facial expressions.

This performance could easily be lost in a larger theater, but Riverwalk is the perfect size for Sowa to connect with the audience. Her thousand-yard stare is heartbreakingly real, as she looks longingly off in the distance, searching the universe for some comfort.

Willa Jo is transitioning from girl to woman, perhaps a bit prematurely because of the responsibility she must assume for Little Sister in the wake of the tragedy. She simply wants a normal childhood, but has suffered the triple whammy of an absentee father, the loss of her sibling, and her mother’s withdrawal from life. She brings a suitcase full of resentment with her to Patty and Hob’s house, staging a battle of wills with Patty.

It is hard to sympathize with Hurd’s Patty. While the young actors around her are natural, Hurd’s performance is stagy. Her Patty is a caricature of an overanxious, overbearing and ambitious suburbanite. Her emotional growth in Act II is portrayed more through the script than through acting. Stewart, as husband Hob, truly is the better half. His Hob is affable and warm, with a sly sense of humor.

“Getting Near to Baby” not only serves the purpose of presenting the mission of Ele’s Place in an entertaining manner, it also introduces audiences to some of the Lansing area’s next generation of talented actors.

‘Getting Near to Baby’

Riverwalk Theatre

228 Museum Drive, Lansing

7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 2; 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3 and Saturday, Aug. 4: 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 5

$14 adult; $12 senior/student/military

(517) 482-5700