In a mud-slinging, fear-mongering election year, it's curiously refreshing to find paranoia and xenophobia going strong in Merrie Olde England, thanks to Mary Norton's The Borrowers, now at ImaginOn in a charming, absorbing Children's Theatre production. Sure, it's fantasy, but not nearly as fantastical as The Wind in the Willows with its amphibian protagonists. No, this franchise is more akin to Hobbits, Lilliputians, and leprechauns, the diminutive humanoids native to the imaginary landscape of the British Isles. Yet these Borrowers are far more humdrum and domesticated, concocted from the adorable conceit that somebody must be responsible for the unaccountable disappearances of little household items such as pins, sugar cubes, or matchboxes.
We meet the Clock Family — Pod, Homily, and their daughter Arietty — underneath the kitchen floorboards of a humble country cottage where Mrs. Driver officiously housekeeps and gardener Crampfurl genially bumbles. Pod, the hunter-gatherer of the Clock tribe, has been borrowing lo these many years until a sickly Boy, visiting from India for his health, spies him scrabbling down a window curtain with his wee bags of booty. This could be the end of Clock life as they know it. Or it could be time for the adolescent Arietty to begin taking over the family marauding from her aging father.
Pod is filled with trepidations about this proposed on-the-job training, while Mama Homily is absolutely petrified, convinced that humans are all heartless, poisonous creatures, despite the fact that Pod was spared by the Boy. This paranoia is small potatoes compared with the hysteria of Mrs. Driver when she discovers what lurks underneath her spic-and-span kitchen floor. Always amazing (and despicable) how the powerful fear the weak.
The Boy's attempts to befriend the Clocks and become their benefactor go horribly awry. When Mrs. Driver freaks out, Crampfurl must evict boarders below to appease the mistress. Decked out in a gas mask, he fumigates their mini-home rather than politely serving notice. So Arietty, who has previously gotten a single glimpse of the outside world, must now learn how to survive out there.
Calling upon technical resources that were unheard-of when Norton published the first of her Borrowers sagas in 1953, director Mark Sutton brings a vision of the Clock Family to the McColl Theatre that alternately ignores and acknowledges the size differential between them and humans. Ordinarily, we see a two-story world in Act 1 as Pod comes home from work and Mrs. Driver patrols the kitchen above, but when Pod and Arietty venture upstairs, actors Chaz Pofahl and Casi Harris become "invisibles," wielding doll-sized images of themselves as they continue to talk. Conversely, when the Boy pries up the floorboards as he discovers the Clock household, a projection screen suddenly looms in place of the Clocks' ceiling, filled with the gigantic live image of Daniel O'Sullivan's face.
The acting ensemble is as nifty as the design team. Pofahl as Pod sports the most leprechaunish of Bob Croghan's costume designs, warmly arbitrating between Homily's paralyzed fear and Arietty's youthful impulsiveness. Harris brims with enthusiasm as Arietty, blossoming when finally released into the wild (populated by fearsome bees, wasps, and thistles created by Peter Smeal), while Nicia Carla as Homily is a Victorian gargoyle of prohibitions who occasionally betrays capacities for tenderness and joy.
O'Sullivan makes a fine debut as the Boy, forming a touching bond with Arietty and resurfacing later as her long-lost Uncle Hendreary. Debra Mein is sheer terror as Mrs. Driver, seemingly poised to take flight on her broomstick, but Gerard Hazelton qualifies as a Borrower in more ways than one: After good service as Crampfurl, he becomes Spiller, sort of an aboriginal Borrower, in Act 2. Two more costume changes are yet to come before Hazelton steals — or should we say borrows? — the happy-ending scene. C