It all begins with a 9-year-old Vietnamese immigrant and a handful of lima beans. But what grows from that modest start seems to fill not only a vacant lot in a fictionalized Cleveland, but also the whole of the New Victory Theater and the rapt hearts of its audience.
This ragged but unstoppable garden is the setting of “Seedfolks,” the New Victory’s latest family theater production. It tells the story of a community plot in a blighted urban neighborhood, and of all that takes root there: not just vegetables, but hope, trust, camaraderie and a commitment to change.
Presented by the Children’s Theater Company of Minneapolis, “Seedfolks” derives its characters and most of its script from Paul Fleischman’s 1997 young-adult novel of the same title. Its themes could not be more topical in today’s fractured, and fractious, America. When Ana, an aged resident of Gibb Street, sees Kim, the Vietnamese child, digging in the lot, she assumes that the girl must be burying drugs or a gun. When Ana’s investigation turns up only beans, she enlists Wendell, a retired janitor, to help save the tiny seedlings.
Soon others get involved, including Gonzalo, a mischievous boy whose family comes from Central America; Sam, a transplanted 78-year-old New York Jew; Sae Young, a Korean woman emotionally scarred by a vicious robbery; and Curtis, a youth hoping to win back his tomato-loving ex-girlfriend, Lateesha.
These neighbors, and others, all come to vivid life in the person of Sonja Parks. Instantly changing ages, accents and ethnicities, this actress illuminates a nearly empty stage, embellished only by video projections (designed by Jorge Cousineau) and a soundscape (by Sean Healey) that captures the inexorable drip of water, the shrill squeak of rats.
While playing the garrulous Sam, Ms. Parks even leaps into the audience, exhorting theatergoers to do what we humans find so hard: engage with a stranger. When the characters do, they’re surprised. A homeless 15-year-old becomes “not just some black teenage boy. He was Royce.”
Occasionally, such transformations happen a little too easily. And you can’t help wondering why this moving adaptation, briskly directed by Peter C. Brosius, eliminates the novel’s most anguished character, Maricela, a pregnant 16-year-old. Why is adolescent pregnancy a social problem family theater so rarely confronts?
This omission, however, does not undermine the impact of the production or of Ms. Parks, whose tour de force embodies the small miracle of Gibb Street: how people so disparate, distant and divided can find, in every sense, common ground.
Through May 11 at the New Victory Theater, Manhattan; 646-223-3010, newvictory.org.
Running time: 1 hour.