Tomás and the Library Lady – Theatre Review: Childsplay, Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe

In many respects, Childsplay’s current production at Tempe Center for the Arts, Tomás and the Library Lady, exemplifies what theatre at Childsplay is really about, perhaps even more so than other productions. It’s not only a case of content that inspires, it’s the production itself. At this point in the play’s history, Tomás and the Library Lady has encouraged several generations of theatregoers to pick up a book and discover a world of previously unknown wonder. The company premiered Tomás in 2006 and has since taken the show on four tours across Arizona, two nationally.

As with author Pat Mora’s style of writing, José Cruz González has adapted the book for the stage by incorporating the style of code switching in its dialog. This is where a character speaks his or her sentences using more than one language. Thus, when Tomás goes to the library he talks of seeing rows of libros on the shelves. In a way, when speaking to someone who has no knowledge of a second language, speaking in this style becomes an invented third language. In Tomás’ case, when he finally meets the lady librarian, he discovers that, like him, English for her is also a second language, so when communicating, the mixing of the foreign words is a constant; together they understand each other. It’s interesting to note that several schools within the valley are developing duel language educations. Code switching during the transition of learning one language while immersed in another is very common.

Every summer,Tomás (Enrique Guevara) and his family leave their home in Texas and journey north in their rickety truck to Iowa, spending long days in the fields, gathering corn, singing of how they hope life will get better someday. In the evening the family gather to hear the stories Papa Grande tells. One day, when asked to go to town to deliver a letter, Tomás discovers the library. He’s attracted by the word Carnegie above the entrance doors. Knowing that carne is Spanish for meat, Tomás is curious to know why anyone would want a meat library in the middle of town. But once he meets the lady librarian (Elizabeth Polen), she not only explains what the word Carnegie is but invites him in. Tomás is amazed. “Lots and lots of libros,” he exclaims as he searches through book after book on the library shelves. “Where do they all come from?”

It’s not long before Tomás is borrowing books and learning more stories, even more than Papa Grande can tell. His English improves, and his love of the printed word gets to the point where even the smell of the pages feels wonderful. Like a sponge, he soaks the information, and soon it’s his ability to not only read and write in another language that opens up new pathways for him, it breaks through a barrier of fear. Since leaving his school in Texas he’s plagued by nightmares of his English teacher shouting at him, telling him to repeat, “I will not daydream, be lazy, or speak Spanish.” Now, with his new found ability to communicate with words, the nightmare is gone. When writing an essay, his younger brother, Enrique, asks him why he doesn’t just draw. “Because now I can make a picture with words,” Tomás replies.

Often, when performed by other theatre groups around the country, the musical play might be cast with anywhere between three to five actors, but with Childsplay, the story is told by just two, and the emerging creativity is considerably more effective. Papa Grande appears as an animated character on a backscreen projection, while with a change of voice and a hat or a jacket, between them, Guevara and Polen plays the narrators, the parents, the younger brother, and Tomás and the librarian. And it’s here with the changing of characters and the way the actors mime their actions, creating the illusion of a real environment, where the imagination is truly stirred. When mom drives the truck across country, Polen sits atop of a trunk gripping an imaginary steering wheel. When Guevara’s Tomás joins her on the front seat, the actor is sitting on a lower level platform. It’s a simple design, yet it immediately creates the illusion that he’s a little boy, much smaller than his mother.

Certainly, author Pat Mora’s true story of the young son of migrant workers echoes Childsplay’s overall mission, but there’s more. Its how the story is enacted, the effective simplicity of design, plus the professional level of talent involved, both on stage and behind the scenes. For some young audience members new to Childsplay and live presentations in general, director David Saar’s production should stir an untapped sense of creativity never before experienced. In other words, it’s not only the message of the play that motivates, it’s the thrilling experience of watching live theatre and the willingness to suspend disbelief. The imagination is stirred not only by the tale but by how it’s told.

Childsplay’s Tomás and the Library Lady will perform at Tempe Center of the Arts until November 12

Pictures courtesy of Tim Trumble Photography, Inc.

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