And Some Things Change...

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

How do you explain death to a child? How do you look into eyes filled with innocent wonder and tell them someone they love is gone and is never coming back?

Do you shelter them? Do you lie? Make up a story about going off to join the circus?

Those are the profound questions circling inside Walking the Tightrope, a children's play getting its west coast premiere at 24th Street Theatre.

Now, if you're like me - you hear "children's play" and your skin begins to crawl. This isn't that kind of "children's theater." As the folks at 24th Street put it, "It's adult theater for children or children's theater for adults" -- and they're spot on.

tightrope.jpgThe plot, like life and grief, is simple and circular. It's the story of Esme and her annual trip to visit her grandparents by the sea. Every summer Esme goes to spend time with her Nanna and Granddad. It's a ritual and like any ritual it's based on the familiar. Only this summer something's different. Nanna Queenie isn't there. Esme is greeted by a granddad who's not exactly sure how to talk about where Nanna's gone.

British playwright Mike Kenny embraces an elegant, repetitive, poetic structure. It's not a play about plot and arc. It's a play about spiraling awareness. Sections of dialogue circle back and repeat,

Every year
Some things stay the same
And some things change.

We hear it echoed in one voice through time. We hear it almost rhyming between Esme and her Granddad as it haunts their memories. It's a bit like the recognition of loss itself. At first you say, "She's gone," then find yourself repeating it while the reality sinks in. We keep peeling the onion.

While death is the catalyst for the play, at its heart it’s a sweet tale of a grandfather trying his best and a little girl growing up. What keeps the play from descending either into a morose darkness or the saccharine world of "youth theater" is the beautifully balanced work of director Debbie Devine and actors Paige Lindsey White and Mark Bramhall. This trio sustains not only the repetition of the text but also keeps the relationships shockingly nuanced. Mr. Bramhall, in a cardigan sweater you'd swear was stolen from your own granddad's closet, manages to capture loss, confusion and love with tremendous restraint. Accompanying the action on the piano, Michael Redfield creates a fanciful score that's a mix of Nina Rota and Phillip Glass filtered through a traveling carnival.

Now while it's being billed for kids, 24th Street is suggesting ages six and up. At the matinee that I saw the children sat in rapt attention wiping tears from their eyes at the beautiful ending. This isn't easy theater and I'd be prepared for some tough questions on the car ride home.

But isn't that what theater's supposed to do, to provide a place to confront the complexities of life?

If you've got adventurous kids take them. If not go and experience a simple play beautifully told.

Walking the Tightrope plays at the 24th Street Theatre - Saturday's only through March 30.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 70 minutes without intermission

Banner image: Paige Lindsey White and Mark Bramhall in Walking the Tightrope. Photos by Cindy Marie Jenkins