For many of us, the aromas of baked bread, chicken soup and other scrumptious dishes evoke the warmth of home. For Lonnie Motion, an 11-year-old orphan in foster care, home comfort comes from the scent of the honeysuckle powder that his mother used to wear. Lonnie goes to cosmetic counters and asks for samples of that aroma, getting transported for precious seconds to a time when his family was whole and he didn't have to grow up so fast.
That sentimental sequence frames the action in "Locomotion," Jacqueline Woodson's 2010 memory play making its regional premiere at the Children's Theatre Company. The show revolves around siblings Lonnie (Junie Edwards) and his little sister, Lili (Mollie Allen), whose parents perished in a fire. Living with separate foster families, they relish their two-hour visits on Saturdays even as he longs for the day when he is old enough to be her guardian.
As played with openness and innocence by Edwards, Lonnie holds onto hope and wonder in the face of loss for which he has little language. He finds a way to unlock his past and build resilience through the poetry encouraged by a teacher.
Allen brings loads of cuteness to Lili, whose brightness, honesty and light are undimmed by her loss. Together, the actors playing the siblings show infectious warmth and affection.
Still, there's not a lot of dramatic action in "Locomotion," an early play by a MacArthur Foundation fellow better known for her award-winning books. Lonnie has some quickly defused tension with his best friend, Enrique (Ellis Dossavi). Adoptive mother Ms. Edna (Charla Marie Bailey in one of three roles) also has some stern rules for Lonnie, who is going through typical things kids his age go through.
And yet after coursing through 75 minutes of flashbacks and interior dialogue, the play achieves a lyrical catharsis, leaving a viewer with both breathless sighs and moist eyes. That's a credit to Woodson's conjuring poetry, which riffs on Langston Hughes' "Dream Variations" and rightly acknowledges the resonance and lyricism of spoken word and hip-hop, and director Talvin Wilks' vision, which gives the play a stylistic cohesion and power.
Wilks approaches "Locomotion" almost cinematically, jump cutting between memories and today. The different realms and characters, including the kids' father (empathetic Darrick Mosley), are demarcated by music, lighting and projections. Wilks' concept extends to the show's design, especially Maruti Evans' scenography.
Evans, who also designed the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Fat Ham" at New York's Public Theater, has crafted a dream space connected to both Lonnie's doodling and journaling. The set is a deconstructed composition book, with black-and-white walls that resemble book covers. The floors and walls are made up of cubes and blocks painted like sheets of paper. Further, projection designer Kathy Maxwell puts Lonnie's writings onto the screen, giving the show the sense of composing and recomposing as Lonnie moves steadily to find his way.
Combined with steady assured performances by this acting company, "Locomotion" finds a beautiful, lyrical groove.
Who: By Jacqueline Woodson. Directed by Talvin Wilks.
Where: Children's Theatre, 2400 3rd Av. S., Mpls.
When: 7 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 2 & 5 p.m. Sun. Ends March 5.
Tickets: $15-$69. childrenstheatre.org or 612-874-0400.