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This well-executed play could really use a better script.

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It’s at this point that the script becomes unglued. When the family reaches the Tuck home, Mr. Tuck (Matthew Costello) seems not at all surprised by the appearance of the young girl. In fact, he seems to have no inner life whatsoever. And for the next 15 minutes of stage time, the Tucks tediously explain the secret of the spring and why they secluded themselves away from civilization. No one in the Tuck family has aged in 87 years because of water from the spring.

The script (and presumably the book) makes much of “the wheel of life.” At one point, Mr. Tuck explains how he envies people who can die. This is an appropriate theme for children’s theater. Unfortunately, Mark Frattaroli’s unfocused adaptation tries to create emotional moments without doing the heavy lifting of storytelling.

The scene transitions are accompanied by lyrical voiceovers that are presumably from the book. Though these voiceovers are not unattractive, they do nothing to advance the plot. Not only that, the end of the play undermines the apparent philosophical thrust of the play. Despite their words, Mr. and Mrs. Tuck seem quite happy with their fate. All of the emotional hand-wringing about the wheel of life is conveniently ignored.

The moral ambiguities don’t stop there. Winnie engages in a passionate defense of a person accused of murder. She even commits a crime herself in facilitating a jailbreak. Everything is forgiven because the victim is such an unsympathetic figure.

Although Jesse will forever be a young adult, he’s actually 104 in chronological years. Later in the play, he makes an unusual proposal of marriage to Winnie. I suspect the novel handles the difference in ages without difficulty. But in a theater with real live actors, any romantic context involving a 10-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy is a little uncomfortable. It might have been better to adjust the relative ages a bit.

As a work intended for children, the script commits one of the worst possible sins: There’s almost no humor. A look around the audience yields an unscientific fidget rating of nine on a scale of one to 10.

There’s really not much that Director Susan Sanford and her cast could have done to overcome the problems. Though they’re clearly giving it everything they can, the actors often appear bewildered by their own lines. It’s not their fault.

A lot of excellent work is wasted on an inferior script. Mercedes Schaum’s colorful set looks like an impressionistic terrarium. Emily Mason’s costumes are nicely executed (though the costume designs do almost nothing to highlight how the Tuck family is from another era).

In the end, we’re left with a muddle of pretty words and shallow ideas. It could have been so much better. S

Theatre IV’s “Tuck Everlasting” continues through Nov. 2 at the Empire Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. Tickets cost $18. Call 344-8040.

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