Emma Rathe and Grace Gubbrud as Anne Shirley and Diana Barry in “Anne of Green Gables.” (Photo Courtesy of Geoff Ehrendreich)
As the present world seems to have a bleak future, in 19th century St. Edward Island, an orphan named Anne Shirley is approaching the world with a wide-eyed innocence and a rather amusing maturity.
The stage adaptation of L.M. Montgomery’s novel Anne of Green Gables that opened Friday at the Hope Martin Theatre, a cast of eight, led by an undeniably talented Emma Rathe in the title role, give one of the greatest performances ever seen on that stage.
The show, under the direction of Tyler Hayes Stillwill, brings warmth and liveliness to the show, but at the same time they contain that energy to prevent the show from being over the top.
The show follows Anne (Rathe), an orphan that has lived with multiple foster families. She winds up with siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert (Kent Guild and Fran Guild), who sent for a boy to aid with the chores at Green Gables. After a constant struggle as to whether or not to send Anne back to receive the boy they wanted, Anne stays with the Cuthberts, and becomes friends with Diana Barry (Grace Gubbrud) while having a rivalry with Gilbert Blythe (Nick Schlumbohm).
Rathe gives what is quite possibly the best performance by someone under the age of 18 on the Hope Martin’s stage. She is an ebullient ball of joy, lighting up every dark corner of the theater with her presence. She does not just play the role, but she becomes Anne Shirley in all of her over-dramatic glory. Even in the most amusing point of the show, one can feel the heart of young Anne breaking through the body language used by Rathe.
What is quite possibly the highlight of her performance is the issue of Anne’s dreaded red hair. Rathe has rather light red hair that looks rather blond in the stage lights. But she makes the us believe that she has the bright red hair we tend to associate with red heads.
The portrayals of those surrounded by Anne shows several of the characters belting away their exteriors like the snow outside needs to melt. Fran Guild starts off as a stern woman, but while still keeping that sternness, we see a softer side of Marilla that has been transformed by the young child. Kent Guild also starts off as a beffuddled Matthew, but becomes a lively man after encountering Anne.
There is also that of the two other young actors, Gubbrud and Schlumbohm. When Anne and Diana first start off as friends, Gubbrud gives a delightfully deadpan performance as she informs Anne that she doesn’t have the flights of imagination that the orphan does. But as the show progresses, she becomes the sweet, concerned, opinionated, obedient soul that becomes “bosom friends” with Anne (at the performance I attended, there were several giggles heard every time Rathe said “bosom friends.” I’m not sure if this was because of the use of the word “bosom,” or because of how well the archaic term came out of her mouth).
Schlumbohm also gives an excellent performances as Gilbert, who starts off as the demonic–I mean demonic in the nicest way–young boy that calls Anne’s hair “carrots,” to becoming the sweet, gentleman that is transformed into something of a Sir Lancelot.
Even the minor players give fantastic performances, most notably Terry Kottman, who doubles as the gossipy Mrs. Lynde and the despicable Mrs. Blewett. During a scene in which Mrs. Blewett is discussing taking Anne from the Cuthberts, Kottman seems to almost be channeling the witch in Hansel and Gretle as she grabs Rathe’s arm and talks about how bony she is.
Mary Gubbard and Brad Brist, who also designed the lights, are also fantastic as the stern yet sweet characters of Mrs. Barry and Mr. Phillips.
While the script trims away several details of the book the show sticks to the major details of the book while mentioning some major events in a conversation between characters.
Both Geoff Ehrendreich’s set and Danielle Warnke’s costumes are white, with the occasional hint of a light brown. The abstract set of boards and branches provides excellent sillouettes with Brist’s lights that at the end of a scene are almost a black out, but have brightly colored lights glowing in the background.
At the beginning of the show, Anne tells us that she will never marry, but hopes to someday have a white gown. She seems to get a white gown, despite the problems that she faces, but so do the other characters and those of us merely watching the show.
(Anne of Green Gables runs through Sunday at the Hope Martin Theater in the Waterloo Center for the Arts. Saturday and Sunday performances are at 2 PM. Tickets are $10 for students and adults and are available at the box office, wcpbhct.org, or by calling 319-291-4494. The show is approximately an hour and twenty minutes long with a fifteen minute intermission.)