If you’re the sort who likes to cozy up with the Waltons or the Ingalls clan on ‘‘Little House on the Prairie,’’ you’ll feel right at home with ‘‘Littlejim.’’
Inspired by Gloria Houston’s ‘‘Littlejim’’ books, playwright Jason Rhyne adapted these North Carolina tales to the stage. What with his choppy rendering of vignettes, Rhyne doesn’t give director Gordon Hensley a lot of help. But Hensley makes the most of what’s handed to him, delivering a bittersweet look at Appalachian family life between the two world wars.
Likewise, Mesa Youtheatre helps out Hensley with solid albeit unexciting assistance in the acting and technical departments. Although a bit old for the title role, Ricardo Leon does fine by his earnest character, a boy who wants to please his dad so much that it hurts.
But there’s no pleasing Big Jim. And Dan Tylavsky makes sure we know why. He’s one gruff dad who can only think of work, work, work. You can’t blame him. As a lumberyard owner, lots of his neighbors depend on him for a living. His only genuine fault is he wants his son to grow up too fast, not an uncommon expectation in those hard times.
Rhyne turns to the women to soften the play’s father-son tensions. Melodie Bogart is on the spot as the long-suffering mom who understands all too well why Littlejim and Big Jim are always at odds. As the family’s resident cut-up, Nell, Tara Hutchison is the play’s welcome comic relief. Of note, Nell is based on director Hensley’s grandmother.
As a newspaper editor, Tim Chapman is the play’s bearer of good news. Not once, but twice. First, as the only person in the area with a car, Chapman’s dapper appearance energizes the play’s kids, all eager for a ride in the horseless carriage. Secondly, as the local rep for a nationwide essay contest on patriotism, he’s a human thread to the outside world and all its promise.
The writing competition gives Littlejim a chance to shine as he explores what it means to be an American. With the hills full of new immigrants, he gleans plenty of noble ideas, particularly from the McGuire family, fresh off the boat from Scotland. As a bonded dad and son, Rodney Rohrmann and P.J. Carlton make a tender counterpoint to the warring senior and junior Jims.
Supporting Littlejim through thick and thin are schoolmates ably played by Fernando Duran, Torrey Ray and Keely Tarter. Rounding out the deliberate cast are Billy Jones (too one-note as a teacher) and Walter Shedroff (swell as a no-nonsense cuz).
If ‘‘Littlejim’’ seems a bit abrupt, it’s with cause. It was written as a musical, but for some reason producer Jennifer Akridge chose to stage the show sans music. Too bad. Given its down-home mountain setting (invitingly realized by designer Emily Dunn), ‘‘Littlejim’’ would be greatly enhanced by the heartfelt songs that enriched not only Appalachia but all of America.
Who: Mesa Youtheatre Where: Mesa Arts Center Theater, 155 N. Center St. When: 7:30 p.m. today, 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday Cost: $7-$9
Information: (480) 644-2560