When a beloved toy rabbit named Edward Tulane goes on an ocean voyage, he has no idea what’s in store for him. Initially, he’s vain and self-centered with little interest in others. Being accidentally thrown overboard and sinking to the bottom of the sea changes all that. He begins an incredible journey, and through it all, finally learns what it is to love and be loved.
The story, based on Kate DiCamillo’s novel, comes to Phoenix Feb. 8-24, when Valley Youth Theatre presents “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.” Selected as the only nonmusical play in VYT’s 30th anniversary season, the stage adaptation was written by Dwayne Hartford, artistic director at Childsplay. It premiered during Childsplay’s 2013-2014 season.
Making her VYT directorial debut is Carolyn Marie Wright, VYT’s director of education and outreach. Wright has a Bachelor of Arts in theater studies from Yale, a Master of Arts in educational theater from NYU Steinhardt and a Master of Fine Arts in acting from UCLA.
What brought her to Phoenix to work with VYT? “My partner and I wanted to move to his hometown, away from the stress of L.A., and I wanted to return to working with youth theater full-time,” she says, adding that the “opportunity to work with Bobb [Cooper, VYT’s producing artistic director] and the team and VYT’s stellar reputation sealed the deal.”
Wright says she loves plays that have been adapted from books and was excited to learn this adaptation was written by a local artist. “Then Bobb shared the message of Edward Tulane, and I realized how well it relates to what’s happening in our world today.”
She says she immediately read the script from cover to cover, without stopping, and truly appreciates the moral of the story: “You can rely on friends and family to help you during hard times, and you can help others in return during their hard times.”
It doesn’t hurt that she had her own “Edward,” a teddy bear her parents gave her as a child. They shared many adventures, and he’s still with her today, having moved with her from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles and now to Phoenix.
“I hope people leave the theater with the belief that they, too, can be resilient and are capable and worthy … to love and to be loved,” says Wright. “I am in awe of the remarkable sense of community evoked by this story and production. Edward Tulane experiences sparks of joy during times of change and sometimes sorrow, and he perseveres and learns during his journey.”
She also hopes audiences realize how incredibly talented the young artists are. Fifteen local actors, ranging in age from 10 to 16, make up the “Edward Tulane” cast.
Playing Edward, his 11th role at VYT, is Andy Wissink, who is 16 and in tenth grade at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix. Some of his other VYT roles include Finch in “Newsies,” Captain in “Shrek” and Templeton in “Charlotte’s Web.” He has also appeared in Brophy productions as Jack in “Into the Woods” and Horton in “Seussical,” and as Buddy in Greasepaint’s “Elf.”
Kate Williams, who is 10 and in fourth grade at All Saints Episcopal Day School, plays Abilene, Edward’s adoring owner. She played Molly in VYT’s “Annie” and Gladys in Spotlight Youth Theatre’s “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”
Other actors include Jordan Baker (Traveler/Pellegrina), Kate Brink (Lolly/Doll), Petra Milan Danek (Sara Ruth), Alexander Flores (Jack/Lawrence), Ian Gray (Bryce), Emily Jacoby (Lucy/Old Doll), Olivia Medina (Margery/Shopper), Prescott Smidt (Father/Watchman/Lucius/Clark), Asher Stubbs (Amos), Matthew Syms (Bull/Neil), Micah Wade (Martin), Jessica Wastchak (Society Lady/Old Lady) and Faith Wheelington (Nellie/Marlene).
Wright believes it “has a wonderful message about being open to new experiences and finding people who will help you along the way.” She says she should know, because she just took a leap of faith moving to a new city and a new job — a risk she maintains was worth taking.
“After being here only four months, Phoenix and VYT already feel like home,” she says. “I am so grateful.”