Most of the action takes place in 1893, when 11-year-old Winnie Foster (Katie Maupin, alternating in the role with Natalie Schroeder) is living in the tiny town of Treegap, New Hampshire. Overprotected by her loving but strict mother, Betsy (Teressa Foss), Winnie is mourning the death of her father and feeling stifled by her sheltered, dull existence. Like many a young-adult protagonist or Disney princess before her, she longs for adventure and more than the world within her garden gates. "I can't live like this forever," she sings ironically. Angry at her mother, she runs away, following a friendly toad into the mysterious woods her family has owned for decades but that she's never been allowed to explore.
There, she meets hunky Jesse Tuck (Eddie Grey), who quickly takes her under his wing and teaches her about the joys of climbing trees while forbidding her from drinking from a certain spring. Soon the plot point around which "Tuck Everlasting" revolves is revealed: The spring is magic and grants immortality to those who drink from it. Jesse, along with mother Mae (Kristine Reese), elder brother Miles (Travis Leland) and father Angus (Jonathan Rhys Williams) all unwittingly drank from the spring a century ago and haven't aged a day since.
Meanwhile, a smooth-talking carny known only as the Man in the Yellow Suit (Michael Gene Sullivan) is in hot pursuit of the Tucks, desperate to know the secret to their longevity so he can exploit it, and willing to use Winnie as collateral.
Jesse is stuck at age 17, on the cusp of adolescence and manhood, forever. Once he confesses the Tuck family secrets to Winnie, he gets an idea. He urges her to wait six years until she, too, turns 17, then drink the water so that she can join him in eternal life as his wife and partner in hijinks. (Yes, it is somewhat creepy that a nearly-adult male is grooming an 11-year-old to commit her life to him, even if he does ask her to wait until she's older).
Some time spent with the rest of the Tuck family leads Winnie to question the wisdom of Jesse's proposal. Living forever, it turns out, isn't all it's cracked up to be. In turn, Mae, Miles and Angus all share with Winnie the pains of being cast outside of the normal cycle of life. Winnie is left to decide which path she wants to follow.
It's a compelling story and if the stage version (directed by Robert Kelley) leaves out a bit of the novel's darkness, it does a great job of showcasing its bittersweetness and beauty. The show harkens back in theme and tone to some theater mainstays, including "Peter Pan," "Carousel" and "Our Town" in its tear-jerking moments.
"Tuck Everlasting," first published in 1975, has indeed proved a lastingly resonant story. TheatreWorks has come up with a worthy take on the neo-classic. The show runs through Dec. 30 at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $35-$90. Go to theatreworks.org.
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