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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

A Long Trek Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie

Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie
Jane Keitel and Lori Lawrence
Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie is Julie Jensen's adaptation of the widely praised children's novel "Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell." The novel, an historical fiction in the form of diary entries, is an entry in Scholastic Books' Dear America series (for ages 9-12).

Sadly, the stage adaptation is attenuated and boring. Reductive with only a tertiary dramatization of the novel, it is too slow and elongated for either adults or children. Based on a cursory reading of the novel by the veteran and highly respected children's novelist Kristiana Gregory, it can be said that, while the adaptation follows its story rather closely, does not do justice to its popular, albeit pedantic, source.

Prairie brought strongly to mind a similar, and similarly faulted, play that I had reviewed four and a half years ago. Entitled Two Headed, it is an historical fiction which opens in 1857 against the background of a massacre of a wagon train party by Mormon settlers and their Indian allies. There are any number of similarities in the sufferings which are experienced in both. Both were written to be played by two adult women who portray children who become lifelong friends. Whereas Prairie covers a period of eight months with the balance of their lives summarized in an epilogue, Two-Headed spans more than forty years. A search reveals that Prairie adaptor Julie Jensen was also the author of Two Headed. Given the time span of the latter, it is understandable that two adults perform it. However, given Prairie's months-long time span, the decision to design it to be played by adults reduces its verisimilitude and impact for no readily discernible reason. (As Jensen is resident playwright at the Salt Lake Acting Company, I wonder whether she wrote both plays to be performed by a particular duo of actresses.)

In the adaptation, the story is now narrated by Hattie Campbell and her new friend Pepper Lewis, one of a full panoply of people who are largely fellow pioneers on a wagon train headed from Missouri to Oregon along the Oregon Trail in 1847. Over the course of their arduous and deadly eight month journey, the girls learn many life lessons which help them to become more self-reliant, more appreciative of their blessings, and more tolerant and understanding of others. And, just in case any children who are now awake have missed the message, the adult Hattie directly tells the audience in that epilogue that "Pepper and I, we made ourselves brave in the course of that trip ... I sure wish some of you of you could, maybe just a few of you, could make a trip like that. Just to give you some appreciation of all you have."

The major fault of the book is that the lessons are spelled out for today's youngsters in diary entries with ideas which are modern and had no currency in 1847. These anachronistic ideas have been included lock, stock and barrel in this adaptation. Hattie notes that President James Polk and the vision of Manifest Destiny are the reasons for their journey. The more rebellious Pepper responds, "What about the Indians?".

Hattie: They can be in it, too. But they must do what we say.

Pepper: But they was here first ... they already got their own manifest destiny. Why would they want ours?

This pedantic stuff can arguably fly in a scholastic play, but Trail is being promoted as transcending children's theatre to become suitable adult fare as well.

Far worse, Jensen again has written a play in which her two characters spend most of the play coming together to talk about off-stage characters and happenings which are never see. In the fictional diary, the events are recounted with dialogue and the events are described as they would be in any children's novel, enabling us to picture events as we would with any written fiction (In end notes to the novel, Gregory provides relevant illustrations and a bit of historical background: i.e., the reason that the wagon train encountered only friendly, helpful Indians).

In any event, there is very little on stage beyond discussions of what has already happened or is now happening off-stage. It would require a more skilled playwright to make us truly care about people whom we have never meet.

Oh, that tertiary dramatization mentioned back in the first paragraph. It is to be found in the interstitial material between the scenes in which Hattie and Pepper "indicate the terrain and difficulty of the passage ... weather, mountains, desert, water, heat, cold ... pushing, pulling .... unpacking, repacking ... it's the physical detail of this journey ... This business should not be faked ... Accompanying this physical score [is] a sound score ..." On a large, complex ground set, director John Pietrowski has followed the author's above instructions faithfully and magnificently. However, through no fault of the direction, this proves insufficient to compensate for the static nature of the scenes with dialogue. Additionally, this wagon hauling becomes intolerable as it stretches out this one act play to an interminable length in excess of ninety minutes. And, despite all the skillful effort, there is no verisimilitude as we are inescapably watching grown women rather than representations of 13 year olds.

Thus, it is almost beside the point that the actresses on stage are delightfully fresh and supple, and capture the differences in their characters. Jane Keitel who is the obedient, hard working Hattie, transitions nicely from buoyancy to despair and back again. Lori Lawrence deftly demonstrates that the defiant, peppery Pepper has more resilience in the face of tragedy.

I am interested in observing the response of student audiences when co-producing children's theatre Growing Stages performs Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie for them in the spring. I would strongly recommend that serious efforts be undertaken to considerably step up the pace and prune the text to avoid extreme audience restlessness.

(Consumer Note: A spanking new paperback copy of Kristiana Gregory's Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell can be purchased at Manhattan's Strand Bookstore for $5.50.)

Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie continues performances (Friday and Saturday 8 pm / Sunday 3 pm / please contact theatre for irregular Wednesday, Thursday schedule) through November 21, 2010, at Playwrights Theatre, 33 Green Village Road, Madison, New Jersey 07940; Box Office: 973-514-1787; on-line: www.ptnj.org.

Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie by Julie Jensen; directed by John Pietrowski

Cast
Hattie Campbell.........................Jane Keitel
Pepper Lewis........................Lori Lawrence


Photo: Carol Rosegg


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- Bob Rendell



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