Jamie Denty

In 1922, Margery Williams, an English-American author, penned a classic, The Velveteen Rabbit, the most popular selection of the 30 children’s books that she wrote. It is the story of how a child’s love for a specific toy - in this case - the velveteen rabbit - grows until the toy is as real to the child as any person. And it is the love of the toy for this child that saves his life when he contracts scarlet fever. 

When the toy must be burned because of the deadly germs it now harbors, the toy fairy turns the make believe bunny into a real rabbit. As the other real bunnies exclaim, “He hops like a rabbit; he smells like a rabbit; he must be a rabbit.” Later, when the child sees a real rabbit in the garden, he reminisces about his old rabbit.

Almost a century later, the Pensacola Little Theatre presented Phil Grecian’s adaptation for stage of Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit during two weekends in March. We were fortunate to attend Opening Night. It was difficult to stay focused on the stage action because the children in the audience were so enraptured with this classic coming to life in front of them that they were a show unto themselves. 

Twice when the actors move to the stage apron to invite audience participation in repeating the lines, “Find the rabbit” and “Go away, Red Scare,” the children add their voices with gusto. Nana, the nanny, has to find the rabbit and the bunny’s unwillingness to leave his little boy helps to chase away the “Red Scare” and heal the child from scarlet fever. 

Adding humor and all too real attitudes to the production is the interaction between the other toys who look down on this plaything made of cheap velveteen and stuffed with sawdust. Each, the Wooden Lion, the Rag Puppy and the Wind-up Mouse, claim to be superior as they climb in and out of the toy box. The wise old Skin Horse who once belonged to the child’s dad and is well worn, has been kept in the nursery for two generations. A pair of “real life” rabbits, played by dancers, steal the show. And the personified rabbit struggles impatiently to become real, then regrets having to leave his boy in the end.

As the cast moves on stage to take its bows, a little girl around nine or ten years old jumps to her feet to start a standing ovation. To the children, the real life actors personified the Skin Horse’s wise words: “There are two ways to be real. The first is when you are real to one special child and the second is when you are real to the world.” 

For a second finale, the cast, still in costume, stood in a receiving line in the theatre foyer as the audience members left. We were able to compliment the actors over the heads of children having their photographs taken with the various characters. This tableau of personified toys and rabbits interacting with real life children leaves a memorable impression for the adults.

Grecian, one of several playwrights who have turned the classic into a stage production, published this two-act version in 1995. This classic, with many liberties taken, has also been turned into radio, television and movie dramas. 

In 2004, Tori Raten-D’Antonio penned a little book, The Velveteen Principles: A Guide to Becoming Real. She writes, “This book combines the wisdom of Margery Williams story with insights from my own experiences as a woman, a psychotherapist, a wife, a teacher, a mother…Becoming Real, it turns out, is the purpose of every kind of psychotherapy. It is living in the moment with the deepest respect for yourself and for others. It is a way of thinking that allows us to express ourselves and experience life - including stress, conflicts, sorrows and losses -with grace, kindness and integrity.”

She concludes, “A Real legacy is not something tangible - cash, stocks and bonds, real estate, art - or even a reputation that translates into status for our loved ones. Instead, a Real legacy is the example you set in life which will be evident in the stories people tell about you long after you are gone.”

But the children in the audience didn’t need a how-to book to understand realness; they saw it come to life before their very eyes and they were appreciative. Bravo! 

Jamie Denty can be reached at jamiedenty@darientel.net. Please visit: “From My Back Porch” at jldenty.wixsite.com/jamiedentycolumns. A “new” old column is published most Mondays