Audiences returned to the Depot Theater for the first time in almost a year last Saturday afternoon for the Family Theatre’s charming production of “Charlotte’s Web.”

A narrator (Madeline Watts) sets the stage for the tale of how young Fern Arable (Azalea Mae) saves a newborn pig, the runt of the litter, names him Wilbur, and raises him until he is sold to her Uncle Homer (Chris Ibarra).

In the barn that is now his new home, Wilbur (Ben Peter), meets a gluttonous rat named Templeton (Lee E. Cutler), a goose (Elin Watts), a gander (Jacob Waechter), and a sheep (Ria Takhar). But it is a spider named Charlotte (Kaylee Peck), who becomes his friend and saves his bacon. Literally.

Greyson Holste and Beth Schroeder complete the 11-member cast of young and adult performers, most of whom play multiple roles.

Peter brings a lot of energy to the role of Wilbur that helps keep the small fry engaged. I also liked the goose and gander’s gaudy yellow outfits, Homer’s rural accent, and Charlotte’s gorgeous vest. Director Emily Lanik Parr also makes nice use of the music of Four Mile Portage and Charlie Parr before, during, and after the show.

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Perhaps the most impressive thing about “Charlotte’s Web” ends up being Charlotte’s web itself. The combination of the outstanding scenic design by Hannah Baldus and how Parr has Peck twirl fabric and “spin” her quartet of messages was simple, effective, and quite wonderful.

“Charlotte’s Web” is a beloved children’s story. I have been polling my students on what books they have read for years and E.B. White’s story has been in the top 4 — along with “The Cat in the Hat” and “To Kill a Mockingbird”— every single semester. The 60-plus audience members who attended the premiere certainly learned why.

This adaptation really emphasizes the idea of friendship overcoming differences, keeping the focus on Wilbur and Charlotte. We are aware that Fern is outgrowing her interest in the animals, but it is more of an incidental detail than an element of sadness.

When Wilbur turns to the audience and tells us that “not often someone comes along who’s a true friend,” we know that is the moral of the tale we should take home with us.

The audience and the actors were all masked and practicing social distancing. The masks actually work to the advantage of the animal characters who needed a snout or beak, although there are some times when it is hard to hear some of the younger performers. The social distancing on stage included a spirited non-contact square dance that earned applause.

Running for three consecutive weekends, this production will also be available for virtual viewing next month as local theatrical companies continue to explore new ways that the show can go on in the age of COVID.

If you go

  • What: E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web.”
  • Where: Playhouse Family Theatre, located inside the St. Louis County Depot, 506. W. Michigan St.
  • When: Feb 27-28 & March 6-7, 13-14 at 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m.
  • Tickets: Standards Tickets $17, Youth (4-17) $15, Children 3 and under may sit in an adult’s lap for free.
  • Streamed Performance March 13-14: Tickets $12 per household 14 (On-demand for 48-hours upon purchase).

Lawrance Bernabo is a theater and arts reviewer for the News Tribune.