You know a play, especially one for kids, is a winner when it can offer the audience a good time while having an underlying message or lesson.
Both of those things contribute to making “Tomas and the Library Lady” at the Rose a fun 55 minutes for children.
Based on a children's book by Pat Mora, the story is based on the life of a real person, Tomas Rivera, the child of migrant workers from Mexico who grew up to become the chancellor of the University of California, Riverside.
The play's cast of four — Moises Salgado, Miriam S. Gutierrez, Darian Tellez and Wendy Eaton — ably tells the story of how a librarian in Iowa had such a huge influence on a boy who couldn't speak English.
As the play opens, the Rivera family is in a car, heading for work in Iowa's cornfields, unhappy about leaving their home in Texas. The ramshackle cabin that becomes their temporary shelter is only fit for pigs, says Ama (Gutierrez), but the family decides to make the best of a bad situation. They need the work.
His family can't understand the nightmare that torments Tomas every night. He dreams of being helpless as his teacher in Texas berates him for not speaking English.
During a break from the hard work in the cornfields, Tomas ventures into town and discovers the library. The kindly Library Lady offers him water and something much more valuable: an introduction to books. The two develop a relationship in which she teaches him English and reading and the boy teaches her Spanish.
By the time the family leaves Iowa, Tomas has banished his nightmare teacher and is on the road to greater education.
The four actors are called on to play more than one character, make costume changes onstage and become stage hands as they maneuver the simple but effective sets by Brad M. Carlson.
Director Cindy Phaneuf has managed all the movement on stage while also drawing winning performances from her cast. Gutierrez is especially effective as Ama. She was funny one moment, heartbreaking the next. All four actors looked like they were having a great time and were connecting with the preview audience.
The dialogue is divided between Spanish and English, but there is no difficulty in following the story — a second-grader from Liberty Elementary said so. Children don't get too confused; what is said in Spanish is mostly repeated in English.
The scary teacher from the dream sequences evoked a few gasps from little ones in the audience and may have been confusing in her first appearance (it wasn't clear right away that she was a dream character). But everyone clearly got all the funny parts of the show — and there are quite a few. Kids also spontaneously clapped after the lovely songs the cast performed.
The only problem I saw was the end, when the adult accomplishments of the real Tomas (subject of Mora's book) were related. I had trouble understanding what was being said, and abruptly the show was over.
Still, this is a delightful play that should entertain the whole family. And its lessons — mistreatment of foreigners, ignorance and prejudice are hurtful; reading can open new worlds to anyone; all people can succeed if given a chance — are gently rendered.
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