Big Chill

"I come in the cold, wintry night, chilling everything in sight," croons a menacing Mr. Cool to a freezing child named Irene Bobbin, who's on a mission to deliver a dress in a blizzard. Brave Irene is the latest play to come out of the innovative Manhattan Children's Theater, a company that consistently meets its goal of providing quality entertainment for children and adults alike. Written and adapted to play format by William Steig, Brave Irene is a beautifully realized production that chills your spine and melts your heart. Designer Cully Long provides instant shivers with his frosty set. A giant white snowflake is painted across the pale blue floor of a dim living room, framed by snowy white trees and dangling icicles. In the room's center hangs an elegant pink dress fit for a princess, clearly out of place in its meager surroundings.

The play opens with Irene (Heather Weneck) eagerly watching her mother, Mrs. Bobbin (Maura Kirzon Malone), put the finishing touches on the dress, which we learn is intended for the Duchess's ball. Mrs. Bobbin is a rosy-cheeked mother, pleasantly resigned to her lot in life designing clothes for balls she can only watch through a window. Irene takes her mother's role in the Duchess's ball preparations very seriously, and when Mrs. Bobbin falls ill, Irene instantly volunteers to deliver the dress in her place.

The first courageous step of her journey is tiptoeing out of her cozy, candlelit home and into the bitter night. Once outside, Irene stands alone, hugging a pale green dress box to her chest while the wind whistles around her. It is not long before the wintry elements emerge to slow her progress. Three mischievous Snowflakes (Christopher Kloko, Perryn Pomatto, and Britni Orcutt) circle her in black and white dress suits while she gleefully attempts to catch them.

The fun ends when the wind picks up and the Snowflakes' aggression increases. They bellow, "Go home, Irene," shoving her back and forth between them, wrestling the box from her arms, and finally waving the dress before her horrified eyes. "We're taking all your dreams away," they say, before disappearing into the darkness.

Irene sinks to her knees crying, as all her mother's long hours stitching and hemming the gown have amounted to nothing. Weighted by her failure, she trudges on, hoping to plead her case to the Duchess so she will know the Bobbin family tried to make good on their responsibility to her.

Weneck's portrayal of Irene is sweet and touching, especially in the understated way she conveys her fear with worried, darting eyes as if registering for the first time the dangers that lurk outside her mother's home. We feel for her helplessness in the face of the elements, especially Mr. Cool (Pomatto), who circles her like a schoolyard bully with rolled-up sleeves and a confident swagger. Irene's desperate attempts to fight him off involve countering all his icy whisperings with thoughts of warm things. When Mr. Cool hisses, "Turning blue," she defiantly responds, "Barbecue!"

But her true inspiration comes from the Trees (Orcutt, Pomatto, and Kloko), stunningly costumed with shimmering white branches tied to their arms and crowning their heads. When Irene is lost, frostbitten, and swallowed by the night, the Trees tell her in a tender song that "love will carry you through the darkness." Thinking of her mother, Irene plows on.

Joan Cushing's upbeat musical lyrics give the play the colorful touch it needs to comfort children as Irene's situation worsens. At the same time, adults in the audience are likely to appreciate the complexity of her obstacles, along with the strong but simple moral she learns when overcoming them. Children will certainly see a heroine and kindred spirit in young Irene. She is a small girl who, when confronted by a large, cold world, fights against the odds to prove to all her doubters that one does not need to be big in order to be brave.

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