Perhaps the best way to critique a play written for children is to watch it with them, as one of a handful of adults in a theater packed with nearly 600 students. And if the play's setting is a dark, mysterious swamp and its antagonist is a forest-dwelling, stinky, scary bogeyman, all the better if the performance occurs around the spooky holiday of Halloween.
Judging by their applause and shrieks of joy, the schoolchildren who attended the world premier of StageOne  Family Theater's Wiley and the Hairy Man enjoyed this moderately spooky tale about overcoming fears and difficulties.
Suzan Zeder's rhyming play, adapted from an old Southern folk tale, features a classic plot that even young children can understand: the young hero, Wiley (Nick Johnson/Tyler Johnson-Campion), feels powerless against his greatest fear, personified by the mysterious Hairy Man (Paul Kerr), who lurks in the swampy shadows outside his cabin. Wiley's loving Mammy (Jamie Lynn Sutton Gilliam) is a "conjure-woman" who can cast spells to temporarily tame the swamp creatures who scare her son, but Wiley has no such power. Like many children, he feels alone and incapable of conquering his fear of something bigger, faster, older, or smarter.
Through fast-paced dialogue and several songs composed by Harry Pickens, Wiley learns that he cannot rely on magic to overcome his fears. He must conquer the Hairy Man on his own. He does get some help from his pet dog (Doug Scott Sorenson), who also provided most of the audience's belly laughs. Whenever the lighting dimmed or the music became slower, I worried that the children might start to get spooked. But Dog's physical comedy eased the tension and provided needed comic relief, allowing the children to laugh with--not at--Wiley’s often irrational fears.
Wiley and the Hairy Man is thought-provoking without being heavy, fun without being too silly, and will perfectly complement the spooky themes that are already running through your child's head this month. Kindergarten or first graders will be ready for this play, but children any younger might be fearful of the dark stage or the sometimes-moody music. (Or they just might not be able to sit still for the play's one hour running time!)
Mammy tells a triumphant Wiley, "Yes, you're smart! You've got courage, wit, and heart!" The children with whom I viewed this play seemed to understand and enjoy this theme of empowerment.
Weekend public performances of Wiley and the Hairy Man run October 13 and 20 at 11:00 am and 2:00 pm at the Bomhard Theater at The Kentucky Center. Tickets are $14.75 for all ages and can be purchased online  or by calling 800-775-7777.
Photo courtesy of: StageOne.org