Theater review: Adult meddling can't dampen Coco's vibrant (and angsty!) teen years

Scott Pakudaitis

Scott Pakudaitis

The supreme irony of Coco's Diary is that based on her writing, the last thing 13-year-old Coco Irvine would have wanted to do would have been to spend two hours alone in a room with a couple of fully grown adults, reenacting her most intimate confessions. Yet that's exactly what happens in the History Theatre's holiday show.

The basis of the play is a remarkable historical find: a diary kept by the real-life Coco in the 1920s, when she was growing up in the Summit Avenue mansion that now serves as the Minnesota governor's residence. The fearfully articulate young woman chronicled her everyday activities and preoccupations with spunky confidence, genuine wit, and the requisite degree of adolescent angst.

The diary was discovered by journalist Peg Meier and published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2011, then adapted by Ron Peluso and Bob Beverage into a play that premiered at the History Theatre in 2012. Now it's back, just in time for the 90-year anniversary of the events the diary describes.

Beverage and Peluso, the latter of whom also directs, open their play at 1006 Summit Avenue in 1965, as an adult Coco (Andrea Wollenberg) and her brother Tom (Jake Endres) prepare to donate their family home to the state of Minnesota. Presented with her childhood diary, Coco flashes back and her teen self appears onstage. Two actors alternate in the role; on Saturday night, it was the perfectly poised Dora Dolphin.

What you might expect would happen at this point would be that the adult siblings would recede as we enter the Jazz Age world of young Coco. It turns out, though, that the grownups aren't going anywhere. For the remainder of the play, Coco's words are delivered by both her younger and older incarnations, sometimes flipping back and forth from line to line.

In addition to their original characters, Wollenberg and Endres also take the roles of all the other people Coco recalls: her mother and father, her siblings and teachers, and even her various crushes.

Although this is all navigated fluidly and engagingly by the onstage trio, there's an inescapable awkwardness to staging this material with two adults and a single child. Good-spirited as the production may be, the winces just keep piling up as 13-year-old Coco repeatedly flirts with boys played by the middle-aged Endres.

Beyond that, the setup compels Wollenberg to get on her knees and whine like Coco's younger sister, while casting Endres as a physician who administers treatments including — yes, onstage — a cold enema.

It's a credit to Coco and to Dolphin (in other performances, Arden Michalec) that the young girl's spirit shines through, despite the fact that the production incessantly winks at her naiveté. Keeping the adults in view ensures that we never escape the frame of grown people chuckling at their younger selves, and the young girl's delivery seems pitched at the adults in the audience rather than at her peers.

The production also raises the question of class. Coco's world is presented as totally typical — as, of course, it was to her — but occasionally we're reminded of how privileged her existence was. In one scene, an awkward boy (Endres, playing the role in unkind caricature) who works at the Yacht Club makes the fatal mistake of writing a sincere love letter to Coco.

She's appalled, and her father duly implies that the unwanted suitor has been fired. End of story? Well, it was for Coco, and despite the benefit of a long running time and a flexible framing device, Peluso and Beverage also choose to leave it at that.

In many respects, Coco's Diary is a polished and appealing production. Endres often takes the piano, and Dolphin glories in delivering period songs, reminding us that numbers like "Frankie and Johnny" were the lingua franca of popular culture for both kids and adults. The three actors are tireless in recreating Coco's varied experiences, on Rick Polenek's attractive but static set.

The show leaves you wondering, though, what a theater like SteppingStone might do with this material — for example, expanding the cast (of young people, in particular) while editing more judiciously. That said, the History Theatre deserves credit for helping to bring Coco's vibrant voice to a wider audience. The book is out there, so we can all meet Coco on her own terms.