Strangers with Candy

Just touch my gourd, and I'll turn you into a real man

Just touch my gourd, and I'll turn you into a real man

If there's one thing to learn from the classic fairy tales—besides the wisdom in steering clear of stepmom—it's that you don't need to treat kids with kid gloves. Lucy Clifford's short story "The New Mother" understands that rule implicitly, and wades right into the murk of the big issues of childhood: fear, temptation, obedience. There's a sense in this fiction—from the Anyhow Stories collection, first published in 1882—that something uncanny is lying in wait on the other side of every closed door.

The Savage Joy of Breaking Things adapts Clifford's concise oddity into theater that's firmly for adults, plunging the work into the wiggly realm of the unconscious. At the outset we meet children Blue Eyes (Terri Elofson Bly) and Turkey (Perry Thrun), both played by adults. This pair has been tasked with walking through the forest to a little store owned by Mr. Gower (Craig Anderson), where they are to pick up groceries, see if there's a letter from their absent father, and under no circumstances ever, ever, eat any candy.

But something is wrong, the first hint of which comes from their mother (Christine Winkler), who looks worried and haunted. Through Mom's dialogue with her children we learn that adapter and director Steve Schroer has given his characters just enough self-awareness of their fictional nature and unreality to vigorously torment them. When one child says it's Sunday and the other says it's Tuesday, their mother brightly proclaims, "You're both right!"

Bly and Thrun evince moments of subtle confusion as their characters piece together the fact that every day of their life seems liable to turn out precisely like the one before. Yet they keep their arms at their sides, their heads down, their shoulders stooped—the picture of kiddie rectitude. That is, until they meet a lovely gypsy girl (Katie Guentzel) playing music on a gourd, inside of which supposedly lives a pair of magical creatures. The cost for seeing the little critters? The kids have to be very, very naughty.

Under normal circumstances most of us, large and small, would leap at a bit of sanctioned naughtiness, but Clifford's story isn't having it. After finding a candy wrapper, Mom informs them in a blank and weary voice that, if the kids keep it up, she will be forced to leave them. Their new mother, she adds, will have shining red eyes, a wooden tail, and a far less affectionate approach to motherhood.

This narrative is a dramatic playground for Schroer, whose direction dredges great bucketloads of muck from dreamland. A couple of Guentzel's expressions, for instance, suggest that once the gypsy girl has finished playing with her groovy gourd, she may initiate Turkey into knowledge of a more carnal nature. And Anderson gives his shopkeep an undertow of horrid despair. Like the kids, he knows he's not entirely real, but the knowledge doesn't make living any easier. Still, his character maintains enough spark to hand over the invisible groceries with a magician's flair, and when the youngsters finally give in to his offers of candy, he alone seems to lament their lost innocence.

By the end, this fable loops around on itself in a nifty metaphor for the eternity that exists inside the confines of any story—including, presumably, our own. Blue Eyes and Turkey grope through the darkness, haunted, their cries echoing like footsteps over a grave. Message to self: Maybe that inner child is best left to slumber.