Playwright Barbara Wiechmann’s Aunt Leaf takes place in the Hudson River Valley in the early 1900s. Though much is made of that region in the production’s press materials, the setting could be just about anywhere with a forest and a river. Aunt Leaf is the story of a quiet 11-year-old named Annabelle Wood, whose decrepit Great Aunt Leaf (described at one point as “a gassy pile of blinking black rags”) comes to stay for the summer. Young Annabelle, the only person in the large house who has any meaningful contact with the bedridden and unhappy Aunt Leaf, rapidly internalizes her aunt’s hopeful declarations that “people come back” and that “living things are made of stories.” Aunt Leaf explains that she has heard her long-deceased husband whistling one night on the lawn.
Encouraging each others’ fecund imaginations, Annabelle dutifully reports to her aunt the snapping of twigs, the barking of dogs, the rustling of leaves and other assorted natural activity, the two of them imbuing each event with otherworldly significance. Everything that happens becomes a symbol or omen. Soon, Annabelle’s vivid imagination gets the better of her and she begins inventing entirely new activity, nourishing Aunt Leaf’s myth and offering the old woman small glimpses of nostalgic happiness.
Actors Alan Benditt, Pal Bernstein and Rachael Richman do a fine job of storytelling; all three play Aunt Leaf, Annabelle and other assorted minor characters. For effect, they continually repeat and overlap each other’s sometimes breathtakingly poetic sentences; unfortunately, it’s soon overdone and occasionally annoying. At merely 45 minutes, Aunt Leaf is a somewhat sparse ghost story; when filler appears, it’s fairly obvious: “So Annabelle ran--down the hall, past her sisters, past her mother, past her father, down the stairs, around the landing, out the back door, and into the dark of the lawn and the woods.”
Ultimately, Aunt Leaf is about more than the blurring of reality and imagination. It’s about unremitting loneliness, isolation and, though unmentioned, it’s also about what is likely serious depression. Since the production lists an “Education Outreach Coordinator” (Amy Harris) and has received support from the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America, I suspect that it was vetted by educators to determine that the material is appropriate for “children ages 9 and up.”
Nonetheless, Aunt Leaf strikes me as an adult play and I would hesitate to take an average nine year-old to this production. Much as questions have lingered for at least two centuries as to the suitability for children of the material in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, one must question whether Aunt Leaf is really appropriate for very young people, or at least certain very young people. The program suggests several “Things to Talk About On the Way Home,” apparently for parents and educators. One of them is “Do you think it’s ok to lie?” This seems incongruous. Using Aunt Leaf to teach children about the pitfalls of lying is like explaining the deaths of their pet lizards by making them watch The Seventh Seal.
The set is fittingly dark and creepy. Amelia Dombrowski’s costuming evokes a pastoral world a century old and Sarah Edkins’ spare set design is inventive: a grandfather clock doubles at one point as a coffin. Yet, the most astonishing feature of this production, and the one that permits me to recommend this play, at least to adults and perhaps teenagers, is the beautiful—frequently sublime—projection imagery of Robert Flynt. As the actors tell the story of Annabelle and Aunt Leaf, they and the set are often shrouded in transcendent projections of leaves, or willows, or faces, or stars. These projections add a mysterious, profound dimension to an ordinary, if particularly bleak, ghost story; it’s almost as if the pages of an illustrated storybook are being revealed to us, slowly, one by one.