Inside the Mind of Junie B. Jones
Kindergarten is a strange and bewildering time of life filled with inexpressible drama and intense joy. First Stage brings the reality of kindergarten to the stage with strikingly jubilant clarity in Junie B. Jones Is Not A Crook. Based on the children's books by Barbara Park, the play fuses together a couple of different plots (the one mentioned in the title and Junie B. Jones Loves Handsome Warren.)
Though it might be easier to hold the narrative of a kindergarten girl at a distance for the purposes of a theatrical experience, the stage adaptation fully embraces the perspective of its main character before the show even starts. Joe C. Klug's scenic design renders an immersive visual reality to the mind of the main character. We’re looking at a larger-than life notebook spilled out all over stage. My 5-year-old daughter loved seeing people walk in and out of doors that were essentially large sheets of loose leaf paper. The sketch, scribble and wide-ruled notebook paper motif provides a rich backdrop for the story. Nick Belley's vibrant and colorful lighting amplifies the visual intensity of the show.
The script places the story squarely in the hands of its main character, trusting Junie to establish nearly every aspect of the narrative from the moment the play starts. Allison Gregory's script cleverly relays the distinctive descriptions of a kindergartner from in and within her own words. More than just a kid's play, the full experience of this Junie B. is a dreamlike tribute to the community of kindergarteners who have been pretending to be adults for many, many years. We can pretend to be something else by creating labels like “adulthood,” but a show like this can make it extremely clear that we’re all just kids.
Once again, Dan Katula makes a memorable appearance in a few different roles in the main cast. Kay Allmand is a warm presence in the roles of Junie’s teaher “Mrs.” and her mother. Lachrisa Grandberry cuts a suitably imposing figure as Grouchy Typing Lady in the principal’s office. The adult cast is great, but here they’re serving as more of a supporting role to the children in the cast which quite capably carry much of the action. As always, the youth casts of the show is split-up. My daughter and I saw a performance by the "Lost" cast. (It rotates through the run of the show with the “Found” cast.) The Lost’s Selma Rivera inhabits the main character in the center of the story with charm and poise. She’s a sixth grader and thus several years ahead of the character she’s playing, but there’s a real sympathy and empathy for the transcendentally beautiful awkwardness of kindergarten in her performance. No strange or stilted exaggerations here...just a clear respect for the mind of a beloved children’s character who has been exasperating people since 1992.
First Stage’s production of Junie B. Jones is Not a Crook runs through Jun. 4 at the Todd Wehr Theater on 929 North Water Street. For ticket reservations, visit firststage.org or call 414-267-2929.