Readers young and old know Roald Dahl’s fantastical story, “James and the Giant Peach,” but they may be less familiar with another story he wrote called “The Magic Finger.”
Imagination Stage in Bethesda will present the world premiere of the “The Magic Finger” play, adapted from the book by David Wood of England, who also adapted “James and the Giant Peach.”
A professional children’s theater company, Imagination Stage will present both from April 3 through May 26. The shows are recommended for, but not limited to, children ages 4 to 10.
Dahl died in 1990, and his estate and Wood had planned to premiere “The Magic Finger” in England, but the plan fell through, said Kathryn Chase Bryer of Bethesda, who directs the play.
Members of Imagination Stage had met and gotten to know Wood at children’s literature conferences, and out of that connection came a collaboration and decision to premiere the play in Bethesda, Bryer said.
“The Magic Finger” tells the story of 9-year-old Lucy, who can transform people by pointing her right index finger at them when they do something that violates her sense of right and wrong and makes her angry.
Early in the play she turns a teacher who calls her a “stupid little girl” into a cat.
“At the beginning, she doesn’t control her temper — it’s usually something that needs justice in her mind,” Bryer said. “But as time goes on, she learns she has to be careful in how she uses her magic.”
One day while visiting her friend William Gregg, Lucy sees to her horror that the family is getting ready to hunt and kill wild ducks. Turning the tables on them, Lucy transforms the Greggs into ducks, which are portrayed as puppets in the show.
“There are a lot of possibilities with the fantasy and the magic,” said Bryer about the challenge of creating and costuming the transformed characters.
Meanwhile, the real ducks, who have sprouted arms, gain access to the Gregg family’s guns and threaten to use them against the other “ducks.”
“It’s so over the top and so full of satire,” Bryer said. “It’s so extreme. It’s funny, and you can laugh about it.”
But the play also raises questions, an obvious one being, is it right to hunt animals just for sport and not for meat? There is also a lesson about the value of looking at a situation from someone else’s point of view.
“The magic creates an opportunity to explore [what it’s like to be] in someone else’s shoes,” Bryer said.
But even more important in Bryer’s view is the value of sticking to one’s convictions.
“I think the most important message of the play is the idea that one should stand up for one’s beliefs,” she said. “If you think something is wrong, don’t stand by, and get people to rally behind that.”
“James and the Giant Peach” is directed by Janet Stanford of Brookeville.
A rhinoceros kills the parents of young James Trotter, and James goes to live with two terrible relatives named Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, who treat him badly.
But then an old man gives him a bag of magic green crocodile tongues, which James accidentally drops at the foot of a peach tree. Soon the once-barren tree produces a peach the size of a house with giant insects inside.
James ventures into the giant peach, and with his insect friends, rolls into the ocean. After a series of fantastic adventures, they end up in New York City.
“Dahl was really writing about the empowerment of children,” said Stanford. “James discovers his own leadership potential and escapes the difficulties of his childhood.”
The play sticks to the plot of the book, but Stanford incorporates some touches of her own, including allusions to England in the 1960s.
The actor who plays Centipede sounds like English actor Michael Caine, Green Grasshopper sounds like Mick Jagger, and Spider is like Diana Rigg from “The Avengers.”
There are also allusions to the 1967 James Bond movie, “You Only Live Twice.” The script for the movie was written by Dahl, who knew Bond author Ian Fleming.
“There’s an historical and cultural level to it, but it’s not going to detract from loyalty to the book,” Stanford said. “We hope [the audience] will feel it’s a fresh look at the story.”
“We’re hoping to have some fun with it,” she said.