As a child, the world and everything in it appears to be so big. The summers seem endless and friendships feel immortal. Later in life, looking back on those experiences allows for new perspectives and the chance for catharsis.
The latest Williamsburg Players production, Ray Bradbury's "Dandelion Wine,” tackles such introspective themes with the writer’s trademark insight beginning Thursday through Nov. 18.
“I think he has a way of connecting with people,” said Director Brandon Lyles. He lauded the way Bradbury balances fantastical elements with themes and emotions that are decidedly grounded in reality. “He also makes you reflect on your life.”
Lyles first discovered the show in 1993. It’s written to be a hybrid between a play and a novel, something the director said presented a unique and challenging prospect. It’s not as well known as other Bradbury efforts, such as “Fahrenheit 451” or “The Martian Chronicles,” and it’s much more personal.
“I fell in love with it,” Lyles said. “I loved the story.”
The story sees 38-year-old Doug Spaulding trying to come to terms with a particularly tumultuous summer from his youth in the fictional small town of Green Town, Ill. He does so by going back in time to 1928, where he arrives as a stranger named Bill Forrester. Spaulding befriends his teenage self, who is based loosely on Bradbury’s younger self.
“I really like the deeper meaning of the show,” said 12-year-old Ronnie Littman, who plays a younger iteration of Spaulding.
Jonathan Manning, who plays the older Spaulding and his time traveling alter ego, said he empathizes with his character coming to terms with the past, including aspects that were not his fault or beyond his control.
“We all do things that we regret,” Manning said. “There are a lot of things that have happened that I draw my character from.”
To be young again
Lyles said he grew to further appreciate the story as he aged. It’s the kind of narrative tied so deeply to the experiences of growing up and growing old that it ages like wine, he said.
“The show also has a lot of great memories of childhood,” he said. The scenes encompass boyish pastimes such as wrestling with your brother or using your imagination to engage in make believe gun duels.
Since it’s not produced as often as some works, it was easier for Lyles to tackle the project with a fresh perspective.
The production design capitalizes on the notion of childlike wonder with larger-than-life set pieces, such as a towering tree looming stage left and the frame of a childhood home serving as the centerpiece.
“The show has so many locations, but it all comes back to the house,” Lyles said.
The set embodies that inescapable nostalgia that accompanies growing older. It was built over the course of several weekends with the help of volunteers.
The production also involves intricate lighting scenarios, projected images covering the rear wall of the theater, along with fireflies and birds brought to life onstage.
The cast spans ages 8-90, which presents another interesting logistical challenge, as the director must adapt to guide the younger performers, who lack the myriad of life experiences of their older peers.
“You have to change it and relate it to them,” Lyles said.
It’s all in an effort to foster reflection on the choices and experiences that define who you are.
“I would like to see people take a look at their own lives and figure out how they became the person they’ve become,” Lyles said. “I think in order to change, though, you have to go through a process like this.”
Want to go?
“Dandelion Wine” runs Thursday through Nov. 18 at the James-York Playhouse, 200 Hubbard Lane. Tickets are $20 or $12 for students and are available online at williamsburgplayers.org or by calling 229-0431.
Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.