Finding titles that resonate with high school-aged actors can be an arduous prospect. The material must be accessible, but also rich enough to allow these developing performers to challenge themselves artistically. Identifying quality work that speaks to today’s youth, while still offering a range of multi-layered characters, is difficult. Throw in a desire for thematic relevance, along with something that will have audience appeal, and the search becomes even more complicated. For all of these reasons I was anxiously awaiting the opportunity to bring Tuck Everlasting to Interlochen Arts Academy. I have been following this script for years, knowing that it offered a heartfelt glimpse into large issues relevant to the age group with which I work. Interlochen was pleased to be one of the first high schools to stage Tuck Everlasting and to produce the Michigan premiere.
Why is Tuck Everlasting so appealing? The heart of this work reminds us to live life to the fullest. The wise-beyond-her-years Winnie Foster teaches Mae and Angus that they still have something to live for (each other) and inspires each member of the Tuck family to look for the positive. Her longing for experiences in the world brings her out of her formal upbringing and into the excitement of infinite possibility in nature. In some ways she resembles Emily from Our Town in her discoveries – “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” Is it better to live forever, or to simply live and understand the beauty of each moment? Winnie helps us see the splendor of daily life as we live it. In a time when these students are bombarded daily with difficult political news and social injustices, the entire process was profoundly life affirming and uplifting.
One of the students in the cast, Hannah Eisendrath, played not only the role of Nana but also served as the dramaturge for the production. In addition to creating a research packet for her fellow actors, she also wrote insightful program notes that detailed her personal relationship with the original novel. “I was first introduced to the novel Tuck Everlasting in my fifth-grade classroom. Immediately, I was captured by Natalie Babbitt’s vivid natural imagery and multi-dimensional characters. As a ten-year-old, the story of the Tuck family appeared to me as a magical fairy tale. Not only did I have a crush on the mysterious Jesse Tuck, but like the young protagonist, Winnie Foster, I wanted to live forever.” Hannah wrote about how she re-examined her original thoughts about immortality as she grew older. This raised questions in her mind about time and how we use it to fully engage in the world around us (or not). A clear benefit of bringing Tuck Everlasting to the stage for us was continuing these types of discussions in rehearsal and helping the cast come to terms with issues of aging and mortality. What is special about this piece, however, is that it handles these sensitive topics in a way that is respectful, positive, and far from patronizing. Tuck Everlasting draws upon the fact that the majority of students in the cast had previously read or studied (and been quite moved by) the novel. Performing important figures from their childhood literature made the piece even more impactful.
Tuck Everlasting is a designer’s playground with many exciting challenges. Our professional staff of designers created a massive climbable tree that represented the power of the natural world and gave our actors a multitude of levels. The moving boat was ingeniously constructed from the base of a motorized wheelchair, as lighting effects brought the stage floor into watery life. Our costumer explored a range of earth tones in the ensemble and brought out a specific sense of period for the Tuck family. The space was magically transformed into a colorful fair that served as a fitting background for the mysterious Man in the Yellow Suit. We were able to incorporate the sense of wonder of the natural world from the original novel into all aspects of the design.
The real pleasure of Tuck Everlasting, however, lies in the stunningly constructed 7- minute ballet at the end. This artistic portrayal of Winnie Foster’s entire life features beautiful music by Chris Miller and is emotionally charged. The clarity and simplicity of the staging as family members come in and out of her life is theatrical storytelling at its best, all enhanced by having the immortal Jesse Tuck helplessly watch from a distance as the love of his life undergoes experiences he will never know. Is it possible to be left with a happy sense of loss because that is how the world is supposed to work? It is a profound way to teach young people (and even us mature ones) about the importance of the natural life cycle.
As I look back on this production, I am particularly proud of the depth we discovered with this work. Although there is great humor here, there is also profound emotion that is accessible to high school-aged actors who bring themselves fully to the work. It is illuminating to have age-appropriate actors playing the roles of Jesse and Winnie; their relationship never felt uncomfortable as the audience watched two people who cared about each other deeply but were separated by his immortality. My hope in selecting Tuck Everlasting was to find a piece that could artistically challenge my young actors with a meaningful story and accessible characters. Thanks to the clever lyrics and heartfelt music of Nathan Tysen and Chris Miller, Tuck Everlasting was well worth the wait.