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The fifth-grade protagonists of Bridge to Terabithia are also “others.” Jesse is poor and artistic, while Leslie is new in school and the child of bohemian intellectuals who don’t watch TV — an aberration that boggles the minds of her classmates.

The friendship between these two outsiders is at the heart of Katherine Paterson‘s Newbery Award-winning novel and of the play she adapted with Stephanie Tolan. Jesse and Leslie create a secret hideout called Terabithia, “a place just for us,” as Leslie says, where they imagine themselves regal and valorous.

Taking the always-risky flyer on a nearly all-child cast, director Jeff Church wins big with the wonderful leads, the personable 14-year-old Marshall Hopkins as the sensitive Jesse and 12-year-old Haley Wolff(an absolute natural) as the spirited Leslie. The rapport and warmth between them and their joy in Terabithia make up the linchpin of this very good production.

Megan Catherine Gross transforms the Coterie into magical spaces. She also produced the paintings that do clever double duty as scenic background and Jesse’s artwork. Ron Megee and Lee Berhorst‘s Terabithian palace is an inspired piece of design. Georgianna Buchanan chooses to keep the costumes true to the book’s 1970s time frame, a savvy strategy that evokes waves of parental nostalgia with every flower-sprigged calico maxi dress and ethnic embroidered poncho.

The novel’s arc, in particular its abrupt tragedy, plays out much less effectively in abbreviated play form. In fact, the ending seemed to fly over the heads of the shorter audience members. But the idea of friendship as a refuge, an act of courage, and the magic that turns outsiders into insiders — that shines bright and clear.

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