The Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of Daddy Long Legs under the direction of Ted Pappas, once again demonstrates theatre at its best. This subtle and nuanced production is the perfect balance of all the elements of theatre that combine to present in an evening of theatre magic.
The story of Daddy Long Legs celebrates the connection of lives brought together by unlikely circumstances. The cast is only two but the connection between the characters fills the stage.
It is set between 1908 and 1912 in a time when there was no instant communications by email, text or tweet or phone. Letters were written and you yearned for a response that sometimes never came.
Daddy Long Legs is the story of Miss Jerusha Abbott, the oldest resident of The John Grier Home, a New England orphanage. When she turns eighteen a mysterious benefactor decides to pay for her college education. There is one condition, she must write him a monthly letter, express no gratitude and not to expect any replies.
Prior to learning her good fortune, she notices from her window a man leaving the orphanage. She sees him in shadows and imagines him to be a very tall distinguished older gentleman. In her first letter, she begins to identify him as Daddy Long Legs and over time treats him more and more as the father figure she has never known.
Through her letters we see Jerusha transform from a sheltered and naive orphan girl into a confident and independent college educated woman. As he reads her letters, Daddy Long Legs becomes more enamored with this enchanting young woman. She reveals to “Daddy” a developing relationship with Jervis Pendleton, a well to do younger uncle of one of her roommates.
What makes Daddy Long Legs so compelling is what we in the audience have known all along. Jervis is actually her benefactor. His mother passed away when he was eleven and his father is absent from his life. As Jervis reads her letters aloud we learn he is a surprisingly kind and caring man. Although their circumstances are very different, he feels a strong connection to Jerusha and yet struggles to tell her the truth of their connection, never replying to her letters until….
Jervis and Jerusha are the only two seen on stage; the other characters in the story are brought to life by her letters. Allan Snyder (recently relocated to our fair city) and Danielle Bowen are perfectly cast as Jervis and Jerusha. Snyder is the more accomplished actor and Bowen is early in her professional career, that perspective and their age proximity gives them great chemistry on stage. He gives just the right amount of angst to Jervis as he struggles with what to do about his increasing affection for Jerusha. Bowen’s Jerusha conveys the right enthusiasm of a teenage girl along with with the wisdom and longing of a person who has never really been outside of the orphanage her entire life.
Ted Pappas once again he proves his directorial skills and sensitivity in Daddy Long Legs. The transformation of Jerusha from eighteen-year-old orphan is subtle and nuanced; a different dress, a different hat, a more confident carriage. The show is two hours, but it seems like we have been with her every day.
The orchestra made up of piano, cello and guitar under the direction of long time Public collaborator Wade Russo perfectly underscores the vocals. The musicians are on stage, and yet you almost forget they are there. The transition into the musical numbers is so natural and easy you almost don’t notice. Be it solos or duets Snyder and Bowens performances are first rate.
Pappas uses Michael Schweikardt’s scenic design to its optimum, but subtlety again rules. Jervis’ office is elevated upstage. It is decked out like a proper gentlemen’s library, a safe perch from which he “watches” Jerusha. Hers is an open more simple space, as it would be in the orphanage or college dorm and her letters are what connects them.
Theatregoers left the O’Reilly last night reminded of what makes life special, the connection we celebrate that develops between two people. Might as well change the name to Pittsburgh Perfect Theater! Thanks Ted for another night of theatre magic.
Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Daddy Long Legs is playing now through April 9th at the O’Reilly Theatre. Tickets 412-316-1600 or online at https://ppt.org/calendar
Photos courtesy of Michael Henninger