River City Players' new show features children on stage

Friday, June 4, 2010
From left, Mike Craig as Sam, Tanner Smith as Red Chief and Aaron Allen as Bill rehearse a scene Tuesday for the River City Players' performance of "The Ransom of Red Chief" at Port Cape Girardeau. (KRISTIN EBERTS ~ kebertssemissourian.com)

For the first time in many years, children will join River City Players on the stage.

The community theater group's newest production, the classic comedy "The Ransom of Red Chief," debuts Saturday on Port Cape's River City Yacht Club stage.

Finding children to play the roles in the play was as easy as posting fliers and an advertisement for open casting calls in the paper, said Tana Howard, the show's director.

"That's all we did, and said 'Bring us your little hams,'" Howard said.

The plot surrounds two men who decide to kidnap the son of a wealthy businessman in hopes they will receive a ransom. Based on the short story written by O. Henry, the play chronicles the debacle brought on by the bad behavior of their captive, Johnny, who nicknames himself "Red Chief."

The kidnappers, Sam and Bill, threaten to take the boy home when they realize he is actually enjoying his captivity, and his antics become so wild that the men are forced to endure physical pain during his imaginary adventures. A ransom note is sent to his father, who makes a deal with the kidnappers. His response states he will take his son back if he is paid instead.

Four children ranging in age from 6 to 12 will play five parts in the play. "Red Chief" will be played by Tanner Smith, 8. His mother, Christine, is also participating in the production, Howard said, by helping out with the cast and children as the "Indian wrangler."

Howard said the group is fortunate to have two mother-daughter teams as actors and stage helpers, Scarlett and Sydney Dittlinger and Lisa and Elise Edwards, along with and the Smith mother-son team.

Howard said she loves to see families get involved in community theater, and that her early involvement with the local theater group made her want to pay back what she learned as actor with the group beginning in seventh grade.

"Most directors shy away from children," Howard said. "Because of Ann Abbot, who began the community theater here, believed sincerely in bringing children into theater, I wanted to go back and do that."

The first production from the theater group Howard saw was "The Ransom of Red Chief," directed by Abbot.

"I went ahead and decided children aren't that scary, I've been one myself," Howard said. "We just kind of went from there."

Working with the children has so far been a good experience, she said.

"They have been wonderful, these kids are like little sponges," Howard said. "They know their lines better than the adults do. They are all having a great time. What kid does not like to dress up, be loud, jump around and be the center of attention?"

Dittlinger and her daughter, Sydney, 9, live in Benton, Mo., and will each portray a character in the play. Dittlinger said her daughter likes to participate in acting and other creative activities. The mother and daughter answered a call for auditions in the newspaper, and both made the cut.

Sydney "knows everyone's lines," said Dittlinger, who often practices lines with her daughter during the drive to rehearsals.

"The Ransom of Red Chief" is a family production. The show times are being moved forward an hour to accommodate the children. Dinner theater performances will feature a meal served at 6 p.m. on Saturday and June 11 and 12. The shows will begin at 7 p.m. Tickets are $30. A show-only performance is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday. Tickets will cost $12.

For this production, the group chose to replace its usual opening day, Friday, with a special matinee featuring a dessert buffet on the end of the performance schedule at 1 p.m. June 13, with the show starting at 2 p.m. Tickets for the dessert buffet and show are $15. Reservations can be made by calling Port Cape at 334-0954.

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