The fact that Manitoba Theatre for Young People is presenting Night Light for the fourth time since 1986 speaks to children's continuing need to confront their fears, whether real or imagined.
The entertaining John Lazarus one-act comic drama -- MTYP's spring-break offering -- illuminates how pre-adolescents' little worries can become big, scary monsters that can be their worst nightmare. The result can be sleepless nights or frightful days.
The Ontario-based playwright presents a trio of worried kids and very simply, but effectively, reveals how their anxiety manifests itself. A 10-year-old girl named Farley is anxious that she is barely passing math, a development that will disappoint her demanding father, whom she is desperate to please.
Her solution is to bully class brainiac Victor into doing her homework and perhaps cheat on the exam. Victor is terrorized by Farley's constant schoolyard harassment, which includes stealing his stuff and physical threats.
Victor's little sister, Tara, is fretting over her father's hernia operation, which is taking him longer to recover from than expected. Her fear of the unknown is embodied by a green, red-eyed monster that makes regular nocturnal appearances out of her dresser.
The creature -- which is invisible to Victor -- drew the greatest response from the kindergarten to Grade 6 students attending a school performance earlier this week. They didn't show any of Tara's distress; most of the time the young spectators laughed their heads off, especially when the monster is tamed.
Lazarus empowers his characters by showing that they are ultimately smart enough to help each other conquer their fears. Their predicaments are so relatable that there won't be many in the audience who won't recognize them and be engrossed by the play's outcome.
One obvious change from the last time MTYP presented Night Light in 2004 is that although Victor is still being bullied by Farley, this time the character is played by a girl. Alissa Watson's Farley is as aggressive, intimidating and mean as any boy. Tristan Carlucci shows that geeky Victor's smarts are as useful outside the classroom. Heather Russell's portrayal of Tara -- ever fearful of things that go bump in the night -- will appeal to the younger demographic spooked by what might be under their beds.
Director Christopher Sigurdson does an able job of mixing humour with the serious issues Lazarus tackles. Grant Guy's set is colourful but visually plain, apart from the monster. The frequent switches from Tara's bedroom to the schoolyard's jungle gym grew stale, even in a production under an hour.
Night Light looks like a touring show because it is a touring show -- one that will be performed in schools for 20,000 students by May. Utility and convenience have this time trumped imagination and whimsy. Fortunately Night Light shines where it has to.