Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Charlotte's Web
Arden Theatre Company
Review by Rebecca Rendell | Season Schedule

Also see Rebecca's review of Completeness

Ayana Strutz
Photo by Mark Garvin
In his beloved children's novel E.B. White reminds us to "always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder." In bringing Joseph Robinette's adaptation of Charlotte's Web to the stage, director Whit MacLaughlin has clearly taken that instruction to heart. Thanks to MacLaughlin's imaginative direction, the Arden Theatre Company's Charlotte's Web makes even the simplest moments magic. The sounds of a farm moments before first light. The smell of flowers in early summer. The simplest declaration of friendship. Humor comes from getting messy in the dirt and food. The production eschews the spectacle of elaborate costumes in favor of arched backs and silly walks, although Ayana Strutz's sleek movements on the ground and from the silks are nothing short of spectacular. Despite this commitment to simplicity, or perhaps because of it, MacLaughlin and his cast spin a tale that captivates and delights.

Charlotte's Web is the story of Wilbur, a runty spring pig who is saved from the farmer's ax by a young girl named Fern. Fern convinces her father to spare Wilbur's life by promising to take responsibility for all his care and feeding. Under her care, Wilbur grows quickly and is eventually sold to Fern's Uncle Homer. Wilbur is happy to befriend the other animals in Homer's barn, especially a well-spoken spider named Charlotte, but is devastated to learn he will likely be slaughtered for meat come winter. Charlotte hatches a plan to save Wilbur, but the clock is ticking.

A pink shirt (Amanda Wolff's understated costume designs are impeccable) is the only external indication that Adam Howard is playing a piglet, but he easily conveys Wilbur's boundless enthusiasm and porcine essence. Alex Keiper and Alex Bechtel are similarly effusive as the adorable Goose and Gander, but the most impressive transformation comes from Ayana Strutz as Charlotte. Strutz uses her acrobatic skills—descending on aerial silks and scurrying across the floor in a back walkover—to move like a spider, but her poise and dignified manner make her truly arachnid. Brian Anthony Wilson is formidable as both Sheep and Uncle Homer Zuckerman. J. Hernandez is surprisingly charming as the furtive, ill-tempered rat Templeton.

David Gordon's uncomplicated set design is a perfect blank canvas for this radiant cast, and Thom Weaver's warm lighting is superb.

MacLaughlin's Charlotte's Web is aimed squarely at young theatergoers (I think the sweet spot is probably 4-12 years old)—there are no jokes or references designed to go over the kid's heads. And though the play's themes of life, death and friendship are universal, I probably would not go without a young person to take. I would however happily return many times with all the kids in my life. Seeing that sort of wonder in the eyes of a child you love is priceless.

Charlotte's Web, through February 3, 2019, at the Arden Theatre's F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets and more information, please visit

Alex Bechtel (John Arable/Gander)
J. Hernandez (Lurvy/Templeton)
Adam Howard (Wilbur)
Alex Keiper (Martha Arable/Goose)
Emilie Krause (Edith Zuckerman/Lamb)
Campbell O'Hare (Fern Arable)
Jo Vito Ramirez (Avery Arable)
Ayana Strutz (Charlotte)
Brian Anthony Wilson (Homer Zuckerman/Sheep)

Director: Whit MacLaughlin
Set Designer: David Gordon
Lighting Designer: Thom Weaver
Costume Designer: Amanda Wolff
Sound Designer: Chris Colucci
Stage Manager: Kate Nelson
Assistant Director: Carly Bodnar
Assistants to the Stage Manager: Natajia Sconiers, Carly Watson