Wheelock's 'Charlotte's Web' plays to the kiddies

Robert Saoud as Wilbur the pig in ''Charlotte's Web.'' Robert Saoud as Wilbur the pig in ''Charlotte's Web.'' (cg baldwin)
By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / April 15, 2009
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The beloved children's book "Charlotte's Web" is rich in atmosphere and emotional power. But transferring E.B. White's lyrical details to the stage can be tricky, as the Wheelock Family Theatre's production demonstrates.

Adapter Joseph Robinette creates a narrator to set the scene and provide transitions for this story of the unexpected gift of friendship. Several actors share the role at Wheelock, and while the multiple casting offers more opportunities for young performers, the narrators create an unnecessary distraction from the tightly knit farm community.

Director Jane Staab has also chosen to encourage the performers to create their characters with their broadest strokes, so that even though the story appeals to readers of all ages, this production is geared to 4- to 8-year-olds, and older kids will find it a bit of a snooze.

The story opens with the birth of the runt pig Wilbur (Robert Saoud), who is saved from the ax by the farmer's young daughter Fern (a wonderfully transparent Grace Brakeman). Sent to live on a nearby farm, Wilbur is lonely until he meets Charlotte the spider (Merle Perkins). When Wilbur learns he's being fattened for slaughter, Charlotte decides to save him by writing words in her web describing Wilbur's wonderful qualities.

The heart of the story is the unlikely friendship between Wilbur and Charlotte, but this production provides little understanding of the affection these two have for each other. Saoud scampers around the stage looking fairly silly, and makes Wilbur childish and whiny when the joy of the character is his curiosity and innocence. Perkins, on the other hand, is low-key and easy-going, and her impossibly long arms and legs give just the right sense of a many-legged spider.

The rest of the farm family surrounding Wilbur and Charlotte are perfectly quirky, including Templeton the rat (played with a delightful sense of mischief by John Davin), Goose (W. Yvonne Murphy) and Gander (Gerard Slattery), and the Sheep (Sarah Kindleberger) and Lamb (Charlotte Horan).

Matthew T. Lazure's farm set is naturalistic, with a two-story barn set that allows Charlotte to hover over Wilbur, and John R. Malinowski's lighting helps create a sense of the seasons changing. Lisa Simpson's animal costumes are suggestive without being ridiculous; Wilbur wears white overalls, pink socks and shirt, and a straw hat with pig ears poking out, while the Sheep and Lamb wear wool sweaters.

"Charlotte's Web" survives the production's broad strokes, but by dumbing down the story to appeal to younger audiences, director Staab has missed some of the subtle beauty of White's original work.

CHARLOTTE'S WEB A play adapted by

Joseph Robinette from the book by E.B. White.

Directed by: Jane Staab. Scenic design, Matthew T. Lazure. Lighting, John R. Malinowski. Costumes, Lisa Simpson.

At: the Wheelock Family Theatre through May 10. Tickets: $15-$25. 617-879-2300,