First as Danny in the Minnesota Opera's production of The Shining and now as Albert in 7th House Theater's The Passage or What Comes of Searching in the Dark, young Alejandro Vega has spent a lot of time this year cowering at prop doors. In each case, the door hides a mysterious horror connected with the character's father — though in the latter show, no one's running after the boy swinging an oversize croquet mallet.
Albert and his mom (Lara Trujillo) live in an ordinary New Jersey house, where Albert likes to hang out in his backyard tent. One day, he finds the tent occupied by Cassie (Mary Bair), a precocious girl who's about his own age. She and her mom (Kendall Anne Thompson) are newcomers to the neighborhood, and — for reasons later elucidated — they haven't brought Cassie's father.
Albert's dad (Bob Beverage, appearing in fantasy sequences) is also MIA, and Albert's convinced his father is trapped in his basement battling a monster. That situation, of course, calls for a rescue mission, and the two kids decide to make a 3 a.m. descent into the depths.
The collaboratively directed story is accompanied by the singing and movement of an ensemble (Cat Brindisi, Derek Prestly, Grant Sorenson, and Thompson). The quartet provide a sort of emotional narration via wandering songs written — like the script — by David Darrow, with live accompaniment provided by an onstage trio of musicians. The songs are largely warm and supportive, elucidating the characters' feelings and gently exhorting the children to take heart in a challenging situation.
In the basement, Albert and Cassie meet a host of imaginary characters before their quest comes to an end. The final twist hinges on a discovery that may be predictable in its general outline, but is bizarrely unexpected in its unsettling details. By the show's conclusion, The Passage has found its hurting heart in a situation that's both very strange and tragically mundane.
Staged in the Dowling Studio, The Passage is about as close to children's theater as the Guthrie gets — which is not to say it's at all appropriate for little kids, but pre-tweens like Albert and Cassie might find the show challenging and engaging. The child actors' performances are like recycled-paper greeting cards: polished, but with the rough edges still visible.
Beyond the practiced aplomb with which it's executed, the strength of The Passage is the way it balances the characters' affectionate and trusting relationships with a willingness to be weird. It evokes that moment in childhood when you realize how much effort it takes for your parents to shield you from the capriciousness of the world, how much impact they have to absorb. Albert can see that on the care-etched face of his mother, and so can we.