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‘Charlotte’s Web’ spins its tale with aerial acrobatics

Wilbur (played by Michael Hisamoto) and Charlotte (Caroline Lawton) at a rehearsal of Wheelock Family Theatre’s production of “Charlotte’s Web.”Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Caroline Lawton weaves her way around a silk loop high above the stage, flipping upside down, turning and stretching, spider-like. It's almost as if she’s spelling out letters.

The magical effect is part of the Wheelock Family Theatre’s new production of “Charlotte’s Web,” which runs through May 15 and features Lawton as Charlotte. E.B. White’s classic story unfolds in a barnyard when a young pig named Wilbur learns he is being fattened up to be slaughtered. Charlotte the spider decides to save him and calls upon the talents of a range of animals to ensure her plan’s success.

The aerial choreography illuminates Charlotte’s web-spinning skills, which spell out messages that save Wilbur’s life. What’s most impressive about Lawton’s moves is that she began learning the aerial technique only after she was cast as Charlotte.


“Caroline is a classically trained actress,” says co-director Jim Byrne, “and she had just the right tone and maturity Charlotte needs. But we wanted to make this production a little different, and adding the aerial choreography for Charlotte’s four messages seemed like a fun way to do it.”

After she was cast, Lawton says Byrne and co-director Emily Ranii asked if she was afraid of heights.

“I laughed, but they weren’t kidding,” says Lawton, who started training in December with aerial choreographer T. Lawrence-Simon from Esh Circus Arts in Somerville.

“It’s wonderfully liberating,” she says. “I had no idea what I could do, but I’m enjoying it and I think it is a great opportunity to add a very physical element to this story of emotional connections.”

Byrne says White’s story is all about relationships among characters who are able to work together in spite of their differences.

“It’s interesting that the characters are paired together in order for Charlotte’s scheme to succeed,” he says. “And of course, Templeton the rat, who is so self-centered, gets drawn into the Charlotte-Wilbur relationship.”


Lawton says it’s easy “to fall into a trap of dismissing Charlotte as just so nice,” but White has made her more complicated.“She is also thoughtful, and tolerant. She accepts individuals for who they are, and expects the same from others. Like any character, I look for the characteristics that are similar and different from me, and I was most struck by her ability to ask for what she wants. She may not get it, but it’s worth asking. That’s a good lesson for me.”

At one point, Wilbur is horrified that Charlotte spins insects in her web and sucks their blood, but Lawton says Charlotte tries to explain to Wilbur why that’s a natural part of life. “She understands the cycle of life and her place in it,” she says.

Although Wheelock has produced “Charlotte’s Web” before, Byrne was excited to return to the family theater after a five-year absence.

“Emily and I decided to use the ensemble to create the story,” Byrne says. “Everyone in the cast [of nearly 40] narrates sections of the story, except for Wilbur and Charlotte. The web became the central image, and the rest of the stage elements started to fade into the background because the scenery is not what the story is about.”

The result, he says, orients the focus on those friendships among different animals. But of course, he says, there are wonderful opportunities for an ensemble of baby spiders to appear.


“One of the things I love about coming back to Wheelock is the opportunity to work with the kids,” says Byrne, who will spend the summer teaching and directing at the Harwich Junior Theatre on the Cape.

“They connect to this story so easily and their imaginations fill in every detail,” he says.


Presented by Wheelock Family Theatre, Boston, through May 15. Tickets: $20-$38, 617-879-2300, www.wheelockfamilytheatre.org

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.