Most of us, if separated for a year from someone who loves us dearly, would feel like we’re living in the depths of the sea. But the title character in “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” really does spend months in the muck at the bottom of the Atlantic – and in the home of an elderly New England couple who make him wear a dress, riding the rails with a philosophic hobo and his dog, lying in the arms of a tubercular girl and dancing on the streets of Nashville for pennies.
Luckily, Edward’s a rabbit made of china, cloth and (as he would proudly tell you) genuine fur. In fact, his pride becomes the point of Dwayne Hartford’s play; only as Edward gradually abandons it can he learn to love.
Designer Anita J. Tripathi gives us a sense of motion even before the story unfolds at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. Two turntables, a smaller atop a larger, spin to reveal Edward’s adventures. Extensions of the set rise above the stage in a swirling pattern, suggesting both confusion – Edward experiences plenty of that – and contrails left by a jet plane bound for points unknown. (Though perhaps not a jet, after all. If forced to guess at a decade for this narrative, I’d pick the 1930s.)
Director Adam Burke repeatedly reminds us we’re in a theater: We see actors shake a thunder sheet or turn a ratchet to simulate a wrist watch, and characters in the playbill have been identified only as The Man (Devin Clark), The Woman (Margaret Dalton), Traveler (Allison Rhinehardt) and Musician (Mark Sutton, who does plunk a banjo but mainly articulates Edward’s thoughts). An overturned chair represents a campfire; a battered suitcase turned on its side becomes a child’s high chair.
From the beginning, we sense that the story – which kept fourth- and fifth-graders absorbed at the school show I attended – will be a dark one. A grandmother gives the pristine Edward, who seems to be attired in an Edwardian suit, to her granddaughter. But the old lady senses something wrong: Edward can’t reciprocate affection. So she tells a fairy tale about an egotistical princess who offends a witch, gets turned into a warthog and ends up in the king’s kitchen. (From which, presumably, she’s served to the king and his court. Yikes.)
That’s the prelude to an 80-minute act that will expose us briefly to parental abuse, homelessness, the death of a sibling and other sad moments. Those might be heartbreaking to watch if they happened to a real child; when they happen to a resilient china rabbit, who can be safely recovered after being hurled from a train or buried under trash in a garbage dump, they’re merely touching.
The cast changes moods and garb so adroitly that Edward’s endeavors quickly make the right effects. By the end, we realize his journey has taken him from self-absorption to compassion, with stops at the way stations of a full life – a miraculous passage indeed, and one many of us never complete.