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Like so many of the plays that are slopped together these days, Isle of Children might have been good. But the basic and undeniable appeal of Patty Duke playing a child about to die will only stretch so far. Despite some fine moments, Isle of Children sinks under a tidal wave of bad acting, wooden direction, and terrible writing.
Miss Duke is a beautiful, beautiful child, and her acting ability is unquestionable. In a way, it is unfair. At the end of the play, there is little Patty Duke kneeling in the center of the stage, her eyes glistening with tears over a vision she has just had; looking at her, you feel like crying, too. You can almost forget that the vision was positively insane, that no child of 14 could possibly have formulated the truths it is supposed to illustrate, and that you have just seen a horrible play come to a confusing and unsatisfying end.
One trouble with the play is that author Robert L. Joseph simply cannot settle on an approach to the problem of a child's death. The play's title comes from a fantasy the little girl and her father (Noel Willman) share about a happy place for skinny people, where it rains but nothing gets wet. This idea is not developed; nor is the sub-plot involving the hysterical mother (Norma Crane) who tries doctor after doctor long after all hope is lost, nor is the last-minute appeal to religion.
Joseph is also inconsistent in his treatment of children. In the first act, right after an upward-looking soliloquy that treats very wisely of life and death, Miss Duke asks a contemporary with open-mouthed wonder, "Duh--what's an agnostic?" Miss Duke and her playmate (James Aubrey) seem mature beyond their years throughout most of the play, but in the final scene they regress practically back to the womb, before surging back into virtual senescence for some metaphysical meanderings.
Miss Duke and, for the most part, Mr. Willman turn in fine performances. Mr. Aubrey starts out fine, but since he only has one expression and one tone of voice, you get sick of him, and by the end of the play you would give the price of an orchestra seat to smack him in the face. Louise Latham is terrible as the girl's friend and history teacher, but her part is so stupid it doesn't really matter. Miss Crane is the worst of all as the mother; rarely have I seen anyone who was so obviously acting.
Stefan Gierasch, as a brusque but sympathetic doctor, is a bright spot in the cast. He tells the little girl, who is matching him insult for insult. "Any more dancing like last night, kid, and your vena cava's gonna fall right out." It's the best line in the show.
Jules Dassin's direction is unimaginative and annoying, I don't care who he is. His actors either stand rooted to the spot or follow the basic blockings that every amateur knows. Howard Bay's set and lighting, on the other hand, are of the highest quality. Ann Roth's costumes are adequate when gaudiness is called for, less than that when everyday dress is worn. The incidental music, by Victor Ziskin '59, is incidental.
The death of a child is, commercially, a good subject for a play; people like to watch little kids die. But even in the professional theatre, such a theme ought to be approached with reverence, care, and originality. All of these are lacking in Isle of Children.
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