When the people of Duke City Repertory Theatre say Ash Tree is suitable for all ages, they mean it. It may be tempting to interpret this claim as secret code for, “Parents! This is a show for your kids!” But cast aside any ideas you may have about the simplistic plots, over-acting and obvious lessons that usually mark children’s shows. Ash Tree may be written to include a younger audience, but it's magical for adults, too.
The play by Georgina Hernandez Escobar is enjoying its world premiere here in Albuquerque. It centers on three young sisters who have a curious relationship with reality. The youngest, Selene, carries a pet butterfly named Memory but can’t remember where she got it. She is just given things sometimes, she says. The middle child, Tristan, dreams of a strange presence she calls The Echo and swears up and down that their bedroom is a portal to another world. While Gaela, the oldest, sneers at her siblings' active imaginations, their mother encourages them by telling stories of the world beyond the portal, the Island of the Apples.
But when their mother suddenly falls ill, the girls begin to suspect that she is actually a character from her stories—a warrior princess who somehow crossed from the Island of the Apples into their own world and is fated to someday return home. With Tristan in the lead, the girls open the portal and begin a quest to stop the forces that want to take their mother back.
The premise is enchanting, and the girls’ bedroom, with its abundant trapdoors and trick walls, is delightful. Still, the show's execution is rocky. Warrior princesses, wizards, strange lands, interlopers from Arthurian legend and Greek mythology, spells, trolls, butterflies with mysterious powers and more are all crammed into one story, and the result is a fanciful but confounding world.
I found myself wondering, Who are the girls trying to speak to? Now they need a spell? What spell, and why? What exactly happened to their mother, anyway? And what does the famous nymph Echo have to do with it all? For such a fantastical plot, important world-building points are often brushed over or referred to only obliquely. The playwright takes great pains to preserve a sense of mystery about the Island of the Apples but goes too far. This script wants clearer exposition.
Part of the confusion lies in a skewed balance between the real and fantasy worlds. The girls’ journey begins when their mother falls gravely ill, their story an allegory for accepting death. But did the girls imagine it all as a means of coping with the possibility of loss, or did it really happen? The audience should be left wondering. What is important is how their real lives are affected by what they learn through their adventure—whether it is imagined or not. But fantasy bleeds into reality too much and too soon, and the parallel we are meant to draw is never as richly realized as it could be.
Much of these weaknesses could be overcome simply by strengthening the character of the mother. Though on stage for a relatively small amount of time, Mama is the lynchpin on which the entire story hinges. She is the reason for the quest, the motivating force that drives the story. If it’s not clear who she is and why she is so beloved, everything crumbles around her.
What’s more, she’s the secret-keeper. She holds all the knowledge of the Island of the Apples, and she is the one who builds the world for her daughters and the audience. She decides what the girls should know and what must remain a secret to be discovered during the journey. In essence, she sets the rules that define the story. All these traits are already there, but the mother registers only as a slight blip when she should be the play’s overpowering light.
Admittedly, Ash Tree has some rough edges that need to be smoothed, but playwright Escobar has the beginnings of a magical and meaningful modern-day fairy tale on her hands. The show provides a positive message for young girls (and boys) about how to be brave, strong and honest in the face of life’s most difficult moments. Escobar manages this without being condescending. The effect is a little bit dark without losing innocence or hope.