Susan Louise O'Connor and Sarah Lord in Walk Two Moons
(Photo ©  Gerry Goodstein)
Susan Louise O'Connor and Sarah Lord in Walk Two Moons
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
Storytelling is at the heart of Walk Two Moons, Julia Jordan's ambitious and often delightful new play for young audiences. Adapted from the Newbery Medal-winning book by Sharon Creech, it's narrated by Salamanca Tree Hiddle (Sarah Lord), a 13-year-old girl who has driven her grandparents' car to Idaho. She is confronted by a Sheriff (Heather Dilly) who demands an explanation for her behavior, but Salamanca's tale is not a simple one. Addressing issues such as abandonment, grief, youthful infatuation, and death, her narrative is instead made up of stories embedded in other stories. "If you want the truth, you have to listen to all of them," she tells the Sheriff.

One of the primary tales told by the girl revolves around her best friend, Phoebe Winterbottom (Susan Louise O'Connor). Phoebe appears to have a perfect, June Cleaver-like mother (Dilly), who keeps a clean house, cooks low-cholesterol meals for her daughter, and always matches her outfits to her shoes. However, this idyllic existence is disrupted by the arrival of a mysterious boy whom Phoebe is convinced is a potential lunatic (Lucas Papaelias). Mrs. Winterbottom's behavior changes drastically, and unsettling notes written on blue paper begin to appear. One of them cryptically announces that you shouldn't judge a person until you've walked two moons in their moccasins; Salamanca, who is part American Indian, explains that two moons equals two months in that culture.

Intermingled with Phoebe's story is Salamanca's own. We find out early on that the girl's mother took a Greyhound bus headed west and never returned. Salamanca's father (Papaelias) relocated their diminished family to Ohio, next door to the mysterious Mrs. Cadaver (Dilly), whose name is actually pronounced "CA-duh-ver" but intentionally mispronounced by Salamanca and Phoebe. As her father seems to spend more and more time at Mrs. Cadaver's home, Salamanca becomes resentful and buys into Phoebe's theory that the woman is probably a serial killer.

A third plot line revolves around Salamanca's car trip across country with her grandparents to be with her mother on her mother's birthday. It's during this trip that Salamanca actually spins the tale of Phoebe, Mrs. Winterbottom, and the potential lunatic. We also find out that Salamanca's mother used to tell her daughter stories drawn from American Indian legends, and we begin to understand the importance of this oral tradition to the young girl.

Lord is excellent, portraying Salamanca's strength, insecurity, and stubbornness in a believable and engaging manner. O'Connor has marvelously expressive eyes, although the adult actress occasionally pushes a little too hard in her attempt to depict a 13-year-old. Dilly plays a range of different characters and makes each of them distinct; even her minor roles, such as the children's teacher, are crisply delineated and filled with vitality and humor. Papaelias is less successful with his multiple characterizations but does offer a funny if exaggerated depiction of Ben, a possible love interest for Salamanca.

Charles H. Hyman is quite amusing as Grandpa Hiddle; he gets to show off his funky dance skills, and his rapport with Lord's Salamanca seems genuine and tender. Unfortunately, Peggy Scott plays Gram way too broadly, as more of a caricature than an actual person. While the overall style of the production is not naturalistic, hers is the most ungrounded performance within the show.

Director Melissa Kievman paces the action at breakneck speed, which is not always wise. Since there are several stories in play simultaneously, important details fly by so quickly that audience members may become confused. Additionally, certain scenes feel rushed. For example: When Salamanca confides to Phoebe the reason why her mother was so unhappy before she left home, it's a crucial and emotionally devastating moment, but it scarcely has time to register with the audience before the action shifts.

Another production element that is only partially effective is the guitar music composed and performed by Papaelias and played underneath some sections of dialogue, particularly the scenes between Salamanca and her grandparents. This forces the actors to eschew subtleties in line delivery and to adopt a louder, brasher performance style so that they can be heard over the music. Louisa Thompson's scenery conveys the sense of wide-open spaces that's appropriate to the cross-country journey that Salamanca takes, yet it also works well for the scenes set in Ohio and Idaho. Paul Hackenmueller's lighting and Anne Kennedy's costumes further support the production.

Walk Two Moons is being presented by the newly formed TheatreWorks/NYC, a branch of TheatreWorks/USA, one of the nation's leading presenters of theater for family audiences. Despite the flaws mentioned above, the production is a fine way to inaugurate the company's new home at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. The subject matter is surprisingly sophisticated for a show aimed at kids; it never talks down to them and keeps its audience entertained right up to its bittersweet, moving conclusion.