Delaware Theatre Co.’s ‘Hetty Feather’ is a blaze of energy

A plucky little girl with fiery red hair and an indomitable spirit captured the hearts of audience members Saturday night as the Delaware Theatre Company presented the charming and heartwarming drama “Hetty Feather,” the final offering of its 2016-17 season.

“Hetty Feather,” the stage adaption of English author Jacqueline Wilson’s best-selling eponymous novel (the first of five), tells the story of this rambunctious, curious and determined young girl who is left by her single mother at London’s Foundling Hospital in 1874. The hospital sends infants to live with foster families until they are 5 or 6. The children then return to the hospital where they learn skills for careers as domestic servants or soldiers.

The play is a blaze of energy, a veritable concoction of Charles Dickens, Orphan Annie and Cirque du Soleil.

First there is the set: a stylish collection of drapes, ropes, hoops and scaffolding upon which the six-member ensemble—decked out in striped onesies—perform all sorts of astounding aerial feats. The ropes also become a forest and a tree house in Hetty’s fertile imagination.

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When the circus passes near the home of Hetty’s foster family, Elijah the elephant appears “live” on stage with two fans for ears and a long piece of plumbing tubing as the trunk. In the book, the circus plays an important but minor role. In the play it is a central and recurring theme, symbolizing Hetty’s longing for freedom and release from a life of drudgery.

Just as in a child’s game of pretend, the players assume multiple identities which they accomplish with a change of hat or vest.

Central to the play is Hetty herself, engagingly and energetically played by Clare O’Malley. When Hetty is an infant, O’Malley narrates her story with a compelling voice and appropriate cries and screams, tracing her journey from hospital to countryside. O’Malley’s Hetty is fearless and always ready for adventure.

She gets a taste of the outside world when she sneaks into the circus and becomes captivated by a horse trainer named Madame Adeline (Rachel O’Malley) who Hetty believes might be her mother (they both have red hair). O’Malley rides the hoop as if she’s riding a team of horses depicted by actors popping on plumes and tails.

This fine cast under the direction of DTC Executive Director Bud Martin also includes Michael Philip O’Brien as the congenial Jem and the grim Matron Bottomly whose sole mission in life seem to be dispensing discipline and teaching respect. Karen Peakes is charming as the loving but often overburdened foster mother and Ida, the newly hired cook at the hospital who takes a special interest in Hetty. Dave Johnson and Terry Brennan play Hetty’s foster brothers as well as other students and adults.

The Zydeco-flavored music by Liz Filios and Josh Tortora is integral to the show, providing sound effects and moving the action along.

The play works at a lower emotional temperature than the book. Still there is no shortage of tear-jerking moments as Hetty copes with disappointment, deals with harsh discipline as well as cruel parent figures and has her red locks shorn per hospital rules.

“Hetty Feather” is family theatre that has it all. But go anyway even if you don’t have access to a little one. This is quality theatre for any age and what jaded adult can’t pick up a thing or two from the can-do spirit of a kid.—–If you go:

What: Hetty Feather
Where: Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington 19801
When: Now through May 14. Relaxed performance: May 7 at 7:00 p.m.
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