Winston-Salem, N.C. – The splendid excesses of the Gilded Age in New York City and a shattering series of world-altering disasters provide the backdrop for Charlie Lovett‘s heartfelt tale of relationship, creativity, and resilience, Escaping Dreamland, now in its premiere performances at the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem.

The show, an adaptation by New York Times Best-selling author Lovett of his novel of the same name, is running for four performances only.

Directed by Mark Pirolo with scenic design by Pirolo and This Robot Dreams, Escaping Dreamland is gorgeously staged. Pirolo also designed the vivid vintage images from the first decade of the 1900s that are projected onto large panels upstage to suggest changing locations and illustrate numerous public disasters of the era. The only other set pieces are a few tables and chairs arranged and rearranged seamlessly to indicate scene changes.

Well-crafted sound, lighting, and costume design by Philip Powell, Jason Irons, and Daisy Neske, respectively, further enhance the impressive world building that has gone into this production. Powell’s liberal use of period music summons a light-hearted surface under which secrets simmer. Irons’ changing and well-focused lighting supports changes of place and mood. Neske’s costumes nimbly – and beautifully – express the characters’ personalities and their personal growth.

The Tremendous Trio, as they come to call themselves, Magda, Tom, and Gene meet by chance and become fast friends and literary conspirators during a magical summer in New York City, full of what Tom calls perfect moments. 

Hunter Harrell’s voice has the range to take her character Magda through a number of changes and challenging situations. Initially, she appears to be a stiff-backed gatekeeper for Mr. Pickering, a chauvinistic, money-grubbing publisher of popular children’s books. But as we get to know her, Magda softens, and we see her vulnerability and her romantic nature, her great capacity for love and friendship. Her feral imagination and seemingly limitless courage lead her into realms far beyond the strictures of the commercial publishing world and her German immigrant neighborhood. 

Played convincingly by Charlie Putnam, Tom, the scion of a Wall Street banking family, chafes against the limitations of the moneyed class. There will be no strait-laced security for him. In the employ of William Randolph Hearst, much to his family’s consternation, Tom wants to see it all – from the Bowery bums to the drag queens of Downtown music halls to Vaudevillians, street urchins, and newsboys. Tom, who takes photos of “perfect moments” with his Brownie Box camera, is open to all of humanity, mostly.

Tanner Whicker portrayed Gene with a remarkable combination of starry-eyed naiveté and worldly cynicism. On one hand, Gene is a scientist, putting his faith in what can be proven today. On the other, he wears his heart on his sleeve, looking for love in unlikely places. 

Each of these characters faces the world with guarded optimism, and, like all of us, each has a secret sadness. When they come together to write several series of children’s books under pseudonyms, they express their secret longings through the adventures and inventions of the characters that they create.

As they toil over their tales of derring-do night after night in Childs’ diner, their delight in the work of collaboration and self-expression is palpable. On Saturday, they take a day off and avail themselves of the delights of New York’s museums, sports teams, and other amusements.

Finally, they spend a fateful day at Coney Island’s Dreamland. On a day packed with perfect moments, all of their defenses come down, most of their secrets are revealed, and seemingly irreparable damage done to their friendship. 

At this point, what they don’t know is that relationships aren’t static. They can change and grow and shrink, and change and grow again. Plus, the friendships that we let go can still stay with us and change us in unexpected ways. We literally never know when one person will leave us forever or when another one will appear out of nowhere. In Act II, Tom describes his relationship with his father in a way that bears this out.

Mark March showed nice range in the role of Tom’s demanding father. Ray Collins plays the insufferable Mr. Pickering whose rules are stifling and full of hypocrisy, greed, sexism, and racism.

The ensemble was quite good, with all of the actors playing multiple roles.

Christine Gorelick was lovely as the mothers, delineating among her various characters masterfully. Emily Graves stood out as Margaret and Isabella. 

Drew Baker was charming as Willie Heidekamp. Roberts Bass played Magda’s father with gruff sweetness. Joseph Farmer was outrageous and kind as Princess Petunia. Gait Jordan plays the Duchess of Marlborough and others.

Escaping Dreamland is full of surprises and twists and peppered with historical characters like Nikola Tesla, Stanford White, Evelyn Nesbit, Fanny Brice, and Florenz Ziegfeld

But there’s nothing dated about the depth of longing for love, connection, and self-expression shown by Magda, Tom, and Gene. The expansion of their characters throughout the show is a match for any of the cataclysmic events depicted in the epic backdrops – from the destructiveness of the San Francisco earthquake to the power of Niagara Falls.

Escaping Dreamland continues through Sunday, March 17. See our calendar for more details.