A Crane, a pottery wheel, and a lesson: Never give up

Play Review: “A Single Shard”

I wasn’t sure about taking Fair to see the new Seattle Children’s Theatre play, which is recommended for ages 8 and up. Fair is not quite 7, but I tend to try and “size up” a bit when it comes to books and experiences for my kids, plus she had an afternoon nap, so I had high hopes when we arrived at the theater yesterday for opening night.

I wasn’t disappointed. There were so many entry points to the story for her, multiple ways in which she could connect with the tale of a hopeful orphan boy, that she was hooked almost as soon as the lights went down. Not the least of which, it turns out, was food (perfect because no matter how much we give her, the ever-hungry and orphan-skinny Fair is always thinking of more).

Food plays a special role in “A Single Shard” — there is very little of it, often not enough to feed those who need it. So the food we see takes on an almost mythical quality. Among a landscape of hunger, the food is highlighted, and our attention to it emphasized. A palmful of rice, a simple scoop of kimchi and bean curd: These morsels, when they appear, seem like food fit for emperors. We can almost smell the sweet rice, taste the salty chewiness. We feel acutely the hunger of those who need it, and the reverence of those who cup a simple meal in their hands.

The larger lessons of the story are illuminated in much the same way. Often in children’s plays, films and stories, the message can be difficult to find. Maybe the sets are flashy, the special effects dazzling, the musical score mesmerizing. And the message, buried.

Not so in “A Single Shard,” a play adaptation of Linda Sue Park’s Newbery Award honored book of the same name set among a community of potters in 12th century Korea. Against the backdrop of soft, aesthetically soothing sets that transport us to village life, even the youngest school-age children will be able to clearly receive the lessons this touching story has to teach them and the main character, an orphan boy named Tree Ear. They seem to be served to us as a trail of small, satisfying bites, the complexities and richness of these lessons stewing, deepening — but never obscuring — as the story proceeds: If you never try, you will surely fail; be honest to all including yourself; a promise is a promise.

Fair was riveted. The story has every excitement a kid-friendly plot should: Intrigue, sadness, hope, danger, reward. But the scale is small — and not in a bad way: The simple but beautifully designed pottery shop of master potter Min draws us in, tempting us to lay our hands on the working pottery wheel and shape the clay that can change the characters’ lives. With detailed sound work and especially through the tender character of Crane Man, a plain wooden bridge becomes a loving home and the heart of the story’s touching central friendship. Even my youngish daughter could read the message here: What makes a family is to care for someone.

By the time we wandered out of the theatre, dazed, still tasting the sweet rice and dreaming of the soft clay of the potter between our fingers, the most important lesson of all was still warm inside of us: Never give up.

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