Damn kid. Damn good company: 'Rhoda: A Life in Stories' at Book-It

Rhoda, the headstrong tomboy who grows into a sexpot, gulps life as avidly as a marathon runner gulps water. She swears and has tantrums. As this narcissist grows up (I hesitate to say matures because she really never accomplishes that), she sleeps around and enjoys both liquor and drugs. She's every parent's nightmare, except you can't help but be charmed by her and admire her gumption and survivor skills.

Rhoda, a character who has appeared often over the past 25 years in the short stories of Ellen Gilchrist, comes to life on Book-It's stage. We see the incarnations that span her life from a 1940s childhood to old age. The adaptation by Rachel Atkins incorporates 10 of the Rhoda stories in a theatrical presentation that draws together the raunchy with the poignant. It's a bit too long, but captures all of Gilchrist's wry humor and her insights into contemporary life.

Rhoda, in all her personae, is played by Book-It's petite co-artistic director Jane Jones. It's a part any actress would kill for. Imagine being asked to play a 10-year-old spoiled brat, a rebellious teenager, a young woman falling in lust and love, a candidate for an abortion, a disappointed married woman, a footloose divorcee and a more thoughtful elderly writer. The part demands the greatest of skills, and Jones has them. She's astoundingly good.

I want to make it clear, however, that I am no fan of adults playing the role of children. There's something cloying about it, and rarely does it really work. Judy Garland did it well in "The Wizard of Oz" when she was an older teenager, and Julie Harris at age 25 created an incredibly moving 12-year-old child in "Member of the Wedding." I can't think of many others who have successfully pulled it off.

Jones' Rhoda comes very close. Dressed in her pink tieback overalls, white bobby socks and red shoes, she has just the right amount of bad temper, childish need for love and bouncy excitement that the part demands. She's believable as a kid. I'm afraid the same can't be said of the three males cast as sibling and cousins. Short-pants on a 6-foot guy don't turn him into a 12-year-old.

This is a production in which cast members play a number of roles. The actors who didn't convince me as little boys were excellent in their adult roles. It's a shame that the adaptation devoted so much of the script to the 1940s where grown men playing little boys are forced to prance around with childish glee and angst.

Jones, of course, is always Rhoda, but her Rhoda is ever changing as she grows up. Her scenes as a rebellious teenager are delicious, especially for those of us who have weathered similar teenage storms in our own homes. Rhoda stomps across a room, looks at her parents as if they are troglodytes, defiantly says and does things to drive them crazy. And she does it with a carefully studied insouciance that can't help but increase the discomfort of her long-suffering mother and father.

It's a wonder that her parents survive her outbursts and self-destructive acts. But they do. Kelly Kitchens does a good job portraying the mother as a woman of infinite patience and a sense of humor. She knows she can't control her daughter so just enjoys the pleasant moments.

Jim Gall is the father who adores this spirited daughter of his. He's always there for her, able to make her world right in the most difficult of situations. Yet he knows where to draw the line and when to stand firm. Gall is just right in the role.

Gilchrist's writing is remarkably insightful. She's able to capture a child's imagination and worldview and highlight the total self centeredness of the immature. When Rhoda's father takes a more challenging job that requires the family to move, Rhoda's response is, "How can he do this to me?" "Me" is always Rhoda's top concern.

As Rhoda reaches adulthood, her personality is a precondition for full enjoyment of the swinging '70s. And enjoy them she does, often with inevitable disappointments. Director Sheila Daniels' staging has teased out all the humor, charm and melancholy that make Gilchrist's writing so admired. Rhoda will irritate you. You may be appalled at many of her decisions as well as her hedonism.

Yet you won't forget her, and she'll provide a damn good night at the theater for you.

'Rhoda: A Life in Stories'
Book-It Repetory at the Center House Theatre, Seattle Center
Wednesdays-Sundays through May 12
Tickets: $15-$32, 216-0833 or www.book-it.org

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