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After its first production of the 2016-17 season, Freud's Last Session, all for One took a wide left turn, bringing a much more inter-generational and whimsical tale to its stage at the ArtsLab black box. Freud, while providing some genuine laughs, was a pretty intense look at some big issues - war, fear, love of country and belief in God. With its second show of the year, The Wind in the Willows, afO has moved sharply into an iconic children's tale, replete with animal characters which sweetly and humorously jab at all too human foibles.
For those who have never read the book (guilty, unfortunately), the story unfolds in gentle fashion, with some unlikely heroes and perhaps completely likely villains. The anti-hero of the piece, Toad, is a funny and flawed character, and it is his redemption which the story puts at its center. The performance of Toad is crucial to the success of the overall outcome, and Jadon Moore is more than up to the challenge. There is no call for nuance or subtlety in the portrayal of the braggadocious Toad, and Moore just lets it fly. From his puttering sounds which reveal his love of motor vehicles to his playfully mischievous facial expressions, Moore gives Toad personality to spare. Even as his faithful friends - Badger, Mole and Rat - attempt to tame his bad behavior, it's hard not to root for him to remain troublesome.
The supporting "animals" also provide plenty of fun. Dennis Nichols, husband of Lauren Nichols and co-founder of afO, brings amusing gravitas to the role of Badger while Stacey Kuster, chief administrator for afO, provides a great moral compass as Mole. But its Ruth Fearnow as Rat who, with an Emma Thompson-like charm, comes the closest to stealing the stage from the delightful Toad. Her characterization almost makes one want to root for a rat, and that's saying a mouthful.
Another delightful aspect of the show, at least for those who read the program in advance, is understanding what a family production it truly is - and not just for the audience. With Kuster's daughter playing Otter and the Nichols' granddaughter Lucy playing Little Portly, it's easy to imagine how much fun rehearsals were as well. Sensing the community on stage made it even more obvious how this community of animals would come together.
The amusing bad guys of the operations are, perhaps predictably, the weasels and ferrets, and while a somewhat bumbling lot, they can be more than a little creepy. For children who fear the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz (or grownups who have seen films like Deliverance) their arrival in the woods can be alarming. But as the story unfolds, their ineptitude and cowardice reveals their weakness and calm is immediately restored.
Ultimately it is the direction of Lauren Nichols which really shines, and it's apparent to anyone who has seen more than one of her efforts that she can squeeze humor and humanity out of any material - and that's saying something since the afO material is often remarkable. The Wind in the Willows is another excellent example of how the company finds ways to entertain while injecting just enough thought-provoking material to provide fodder for conversation days after the performance.