The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Edward Tulane castThe first show of the new year is from the Des Moines Playhouse, specifically part of the Family series at the Kate Goldman Theatre. Opening Friday January 4 is The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo, this wondrous story has a cast of four playing over 30 characters, all of whom interact with a small toy china rabbit named Edward.

Four EdwardsEdward really is a toy rabbit in this show, and DM Playhouse costume designer Angela Lampe has built multiple copies of Edward from scratch for use in the play. “He is adorable, and we’re all quite taken with him!” says the narrator of the piece, Laura Sparks. “While the rest of us play multiple parts, the actor playing the Musician (Craig Petersen) is solely the voice of Edward. Music communicates directly to people’s hearts without the need for any words. And Edward communicates heart-to-heart with those he encounters.”

Character Journeys

In addition to narrating the story, Sparks gets to create many other personas to help tell the story of Edward Tulane, under the description of “The Traveler”. “In the course of telling the tale, I also portray nearly a dozen other characters, including the grandmother, a society lady, a rude little boy, a hobo, a railroad watchman, a waitress, a princess, a witch, a crow, and a doll mender! The challenge is to make each one immediately recognizable while keeping the story flowing, so I do my best to make big choices for each change. I focus on just a couple of elements, whether it be a distinctive physical shape or vocal placement, in order to lock in to a given character quickly.”

Maggie Craig LauraWith such a variety, there’s obviously a challenge to differentiate these roles. And some of the challenges, while fun, are definitely against Sparks’ typical attitude. “The ones I’m having the most fun with right now are the more outrageous ones, the ones that are a little bit over-the-top. What is challenging for me is that many of the characters I play are antagonistic toward Edward, and a couple of them are out-and-out mean. Initially, it can be a struggle for me to go as far as I need to go in that direction, especially knowing younger people will be watching. But if I focus on my overall role as the leader of this traveling troupe of storytellers, then my purpose is clear. Both as a real life actor and also as a storyteller in the world of the play, my job is to serve the narrative and to convey the story. If it weren’t for these characters forcing Edward into these situations, he wouldn’t grow and change, and there simply wouldn’t be a story. So, I kick the dog, I yell at the child, I throw the rabbit onto the garbage pile.”

Edward and MaggieIf Sparks is given the dirty work of being the antagonistic person that Edward encounters along the way, its a good thing Maggie Schmitt is there as well. Schmitt (simply called “The Woman” in the script) also has multiple roles, including a dog, a star, and two different dolls. “Even though my characters span a wide range, they all have a common thread. With a few exceptions, I play all the characters whom Edward is given to by a loved one. For most of the show I act opposite The Man, played by Oliver Thrun. We portray many different relationships including a father and daughter, a husband and wife, a brother and sister, and a hobo and his dog. My favorite character I get to play is Abilene, the little girl who receives Edward as a gift from her grandmother at the very beginning of his journey. One of the more challenging characters I play is Sarah Ruth, a four year old dying of tuberculosis. She has very few lines with which to convey a great deal of emotion.”

Emotional Journeys

Woman Man TravelerSchmitt has her own emotional reaction to The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. “I was fairly familiar with the story before I became a part of the production, having read many of Kate DiCamillo’s books as a child. I was a huge fan of The Tale of Despereaux and Because of Winn-Dixie. I immediately fell in love with The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane the first time I read the script. I truly believe this story is a universal one that will appeal to all ages. I was drawn to this show not only because of the beautiful story, but because of the physical and vocal challenges presented by playing nearly a dozen characters. Additionally, this is the smallest cast I’ve ever had the opportunity to be a part of.

And while the cast may be small, the story and multiple characters make The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane a joy for all involved. As Sparks relates, “It’s really rewarding to work with this group of people. Our director, Jodi Jinks, is creative, smart, and inspiring, and she invites and encourages us to explore and contribute. There are lots of opportunities for putting our own stamp on the show to make it unique from any other production of the same play.”

Timeless Journeys

Edward Man MusicianAs a theatre production, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is a relatively recent show, as the first production of the play anywhere was in 2013. But it touches the heart of everyone, no matter what age. “I’d never heard of it until after the Playhouse announced it as part of their new season. I fell in love with the script,” admits Sparks. “It’s a poetic, heartbreaking, and deeply satisfying story. The novel from which the play is adapted is only about a dozen years old, but there’s a timelessness to it that has the flavor of a classic, the kind of book that will be reread and loved for generations. For anyone who has already read and loved the book, this play is an excellent adaptation.”

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane opens Friday January 4 and runs weekends through January 20 at the Kate Goldman Children’s Theatre in the Des Moines Playhouse. Tickets are available through the DM Playhouse website, in person at their ticket office, or by phone at (515) 277-6261

Photos by Steve Gibbons, courtesy of the Des Moines Playhouse

Des Moines Playhouse Maggie Schmitt Laura Sparks