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Theater review: Fall in love with "Anne of Green Gables," for the first time or all over again

Cheryl Skafte is Anne and Tammy Ostrander is Marilla in Wise Fool Shakespeare’s family-friendly production of “Anne of Green Gables.” (Photo by Rebecca Farmer)

All the world is divided into two camps: those who are in love with Anne Shirley, and those who have not encountered her yet. It will be especially easy to fall in love with her if your introduction to the beloved character is Cheryl Skafte's performance in Wise Fool Shakespeare's enjoyable production of "Anne of Green Gables," which opened Friday night at the Manion Theatre on the University of Wisconsin-Superior campus.

Lucy Maud Montgomery published her novel "Anne of Green Gables" in 1908 and inspired seven sequels along with an assortment of related stories and even an authorized prequel for the original novel's centennial. No less an expert than Mark Twain pronounced Anne Shirley "the dearest and most loveable child in fiction since the immortal Alice." 

In the town of Avonlea on Prince Edward Island in the Canadian maritime, Matthew Cuthbert (Phil Fitzpatrick) shows up at the train station to pick up an orphan boy to help on the farm only to be surprised when instead he finds Anne Shirley. The 12-year-old orphan girl has an exaggerated sense of hyperbole, combined with a "scope of imagination" beyond the ken of the Cuthberts, when she's not bursting into tears while wallowing in "the depths of despair" over a lengthy list of "tragical" occurrences, such as her extremely red hair.

But the old bachelor is clearly smitten with the talkative little girl, and along with circumstances convinces his old maid sister, Marilla (Tammy Ostrander), to keep Anne at Green Gables. Skafte handles both Anne's nonstop chatter and those abrupt shifts in topic and tone with equal aplomb, with her best moment coming in her heart-felt, overly dramatic and yet brutally honest apology to Mrs. Lynde (Shey Peterson).

Matthew is a man of few words, virtually mute confronted by Anne's verbal avalanches, but Fitzpatrick knows how to fill those silences to make what he does say decidedly choice. But in this play, as in the novel, Marilla has the emotional moments. Although she is barely able to share with her brother the feelings she has that the orphan girl was not a boy, her hard veneer thaws and shatters in Act Two. Ostrander was tripping over her tongue a lot on opening night, and while her scenes with Matthew were touching, I really think she needed to take her time with at least one, if not both, of her big moments with Anne.

This 2007 adaptation was written by Peter DeLaurier, who played Matthew opposite his wife as Marilla in the original production. The script is faithful not only to the novel's narrative but, more importantly, Montgomery's dialogue. I noticed several points where he had turned mere descriptions in the book into dialogue.

One of DeLaurier's best touches is to have someone telling what happened to Matthew and Marilla in their kitchen at Green Gables, while the story is acted out elsewhere on stage, as the report of Anne's fateful first encounter with Gilbert Blythe (Cade Kowalczak), hysterically enacted by Jane Andrews (Jennie Ross) and Ruby Gillis (Anna Vogt). Equally funny is when Anne's "bosom friend," Diana Barry (Sarah Ruth Diener), pours herself another glass, or two, of what proves not to be raspberry cordial.

Jeff Brown's set design features the interior of Green Gables, with the signature architectural details presented above, flanked by the Avonlea station where Matthew first sees Anne with benches beyond it on one side and a front porch on the other. Most of these pieces end up being multipurpose, as when a bench becomes a buggy, and there is some nice creativity in staging the rescuing of Elaine, the Lily Maid.

The music, which serves both as background for scenes as well as for scene changes, is mostly acoustic guitar, with a dulcimer for festive times and a somber piano when the tragical becomes tragic. There are also an impressive amount of costume changes in this production, which speaks to Ninneman's attention to authenticity.

The rest of the cast consists of Tonya Porter as Josie Pye, who cannot help but be disagreeable, Jim Paine as Moody MacPherson, and Kendra Carlson as every other adult woman in this show, which ends with Anne announcing "all is right in the world."  Of course, it will take another two books before Anne finally realizes what everybody in Avonlea already knows, namely that Gilbert Blythe is the love of her life. 

LAWRANCE BERNABO has a display case filled with "Anne of Green Gables" items and honeymooned on Prince Edward Island at the "White Sands Hotel."

 If you go

What:  Wise Fool Shakespeare's production of "Anne of Green Gables"

Where: Manion Theatre, University of Wisconsin-Superior, 1805 Catlin Ave.

When: 7:30 tonight and May 9-10; 2 p.m. today, Sunday and May 10-11

Tickets: $14 adults, $6 children; Saturday matinees are pay what you can at the door

For information: (218) 269-4953 or