You'll wish you hadn't answered Sarah's personal ad.

Plain and Simple 

You'll wish you hadn't answered Sarah's personal ad.

When the Hallmark Hall of Fame crew was filming the first episode of Patricia MacLachlan's Sarah, Plain and Tall stories, a chartered bus of Kansas City journalists traveled to a Kansas farm an hour west of town to spend half a day on the set. In their period costumes, Christopher Walken and Glenn Close were made to endure quick interviews standing in a circle -- like a movie junket on a dirt floor. The actors were visibly uncomfortable, and most of the local scribes were embarrassingly gushy. It was with visible relief that Close strode back to her trailer.

Close and Walken, of course, aren't in the Coterie's new adaptation of Sarah, Plain and Tall, its long-awaited substitution for the series of Little House on the Prairie books that usually fill the holiday season. However, there's still a reminder of that awkward press conference: Sharing the stage with Cynthia Rider and Stuart Rider in the Close and Walken roles are pieces from the films' sets, on loan to the Coterie from the Agricultural Hall of Fame.

The props -- a clothes wringer, a wash basin and a plow, among others -- help evoke the modest Kansas farm where wind-chapped widower Jacob Witting (Stuart Rider) and his daughter, Anna (Emily Peterson), and son, Caleb (Gabe Goodman), live. Their closest friends include Matthew Nordstrom (Charles Fugate) and his mail-order bride, Maddie (Vanessa Severo), who came to him as if in a dream but actually arrived through a want ad.

Nordstrom convinces Witting to do the same, and the single dad is soon exchanging letters with Sarah Wheaton (Cynthia Rider), a proud spinster from Maine. She applies the titular adjectives to herself, then adds a caveat before her one-month tryout in Kansas: "But I'm not mild-mannered."

That's an understatement. To Jacob's Midwestern mentality, she's a radical feminist -- a banshee in bib overalls. She's not embraced by Anna, either, who spends nearly the entire play humming a one-note pouty funk. Only Caleb warms up to her, but then, he's out picking flowers and singing songs with her. (Maybe he grows up to be a flowery entertainer.) The Nordstroms like her OK, but Witting throws a fit when Sarah moves suppertime without his permission.

The show, adapted by Joseph Robinette and directed by Jeff Church, is corny as Kansas; it's one knotty cliché. There's some decent work by the adult actors, but the younger cast members (including Sarah Jordan and Alison Meagher Manson as the Nordstrom girls) play it all quite tentatively. The rhythm is off, leaving an episodic, metronomic quality that drips rather than flows. The play's ending is a predictable thawing of the frosty Wittings and a repeat of a song better left to a church group around a campfire.

Jeff McLaughlin's set design conveys a flat Kansas tundra made interesting only by houses and wells. The floor is an atmospheric recreation of the middle of the state seen from a plane, a greenish-brown quilt. Georgianna Londre's costumes are true to the characters' humility, and Art Kent's lighting respectably captures the cruel beauty of landlocked dusks and dawns.

But the story's arc is so prefab, it begs the question: How did the Hallmark Hall of Fame squeeze three teleplays out of this?


Postscript: Artistic directors never like to eat their words. But sometimes the pressures of time and money force them to, resulting in announced shows getting the ax.

Such is the case with Late Night Theatre, whose brochure has all year promised a December production of Johnny Quest and Josie and the Pussycats. Instead, Late Night's head honcho, Ron Megee, is staging the significantly more economical one-man show The Santaland Diaries, which he performed at the Unicorn in 2000 and 2001.

The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival has also announced a change of plans for next summer's encampment at Southmoreland Park. Artistic Director Sidonie Garrett says that budgetary constraints played a part in replacing its two-show, repertory-style season of Henry IV, Part 1 and Much Ado About Nothing with one show, Julius Caesar, playing the four-week festival alone.

"It's the ugly world of numbers," Garrett says. "It seemed more fiscally responsible to say, 'Maybe we should just make sure we're all right.'"

For Garrett, it came down to something resembling a story problem from fifth-grade math class: The cost of two shows plus two costume designs and two sets is greater than one show with togas (a welcome change for the actors from the furs and velvets of previous Shakespeares in July).

"Plus, we hadn't done any of the Roman plays," she says. "Caesar is very political and sizable but not like a Hamlet. I'm still cutting [the text], but anytime you have war and battles onstage, you can have 300 people and still feel like you don't have enough. We should end up with around eighteen in the cast."

Having watched the Joseph Mankiewicz film version lately, Garrett adds, "Maybe Marlon Brando can come and do it." If he's interested, auditions for the show will be December 13-15.

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