For Childsplay’s debut at the new $66.5 million Tempe Center for the Arts, the nationally renowned theater for young audiences is getting some help from a few old friends.
Namely, a girl called Fern and her pet pig, Wilbur. Oh, and of course Charlotte, the ever-friendly arachnid who spins literary webs to save Wilbur from slaughter.
The company kicks off its 30th season with a stage production of E.B. White’s 1952 classic, “Charlotte’s Web,” running through Oct. 14 in the Tempe Center’s 600-seat main-stage theater.
It’s a perfect choice for the troupe’s debut — not only because it’s the most-requested play in Childsplay’s history, artistic director David Saar says. The show, which opened last week, showcases what the company does best: weaving stories with humor and complexity around productions that balance high value and the power of imagination.
But complexity is the key here. “Charlotte’s Web” isn’t a sugarcoated confection from Disney; it’s a bittersweet story of a barn spider who knowingly risks her life to help the porcine friend who lives in the pen beneath her. (For the few who’ve never cracked open the storybook: Charlotte spells silky praise like “Some pig” and “Radiant,” an exclamation point away from resembling a modern-day movie critic’s blurb, to attract the attention of the farmer and prevent Wilbur from being made into, ahem, breakfast sausage.)
“It’s about the totality of friendship — loyalty, joy, sacrifice,” says Debra K. Stevens, an actress who has spent 25 years with Childsplay. “It’s, for me, the purest relationship someone can have.”
Sporting a shimmering, multi-legged ensemble and hanging from a large web in the barn’s loft, Stevens plays Charlotte with a maternal warmth. D. Scott Withers, with pink ears shooting from a baseball cap, plays Wilbur.
But the play’s standout performance, as always, belongs to Jon Gentry, the Mesa actor who plays Templeton the rat — cackling like “Batman” arch-villain the Penguin behind a mustache and a shock of hair like a young Einstein.
Childsplay’s intimate new venue and its production of “Charlotte’s Web” get high marks from children, parents and teachers who’ve taken classes to weekday shows. (Weekends belong to general audiences.)
“I like the smallness of the venue,” says third-grade teacher Liz Richards of Phoenix’s Lookout Mountain Elementary School. “The kids get to feel like they’re up close.”
For Stevens and the rest of Childsplay, there’s a sigh of relief that comes with their debut at the Tempe Center for the Arts — after years of playing venues across the Valley.
“To have a place to really call home,” says Stevens, “is a beautiful thing.”
When: 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, closing Oct. 14
Where: Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway
Cost: $25, $20 for children, senior citizens and students
Information: (480) 350-2822 or www.childsplayaz.org