Long before J.K. Rowling launched Harry, Hermione, and Ron on their battle against evil, sci-fi author Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time charged her trio of heroes with a similar quest. Like the Harry Potter series, L'Engle's 1962 novel appeals to adults as well as children, which People's Light and Theatre Company proves in its clever and entertaining staging of John Glore's 2010 adaptation.
The premise: Teenager Meg Murry's (Emilie Krause) father vanished two years ago while working on a secret government project. Her genius brother Charles Wallace's (Conrad David Sager) premonition and a chance encounter with an older boy (Aubie Merrylees as Calvin) convince her that they can rescue Dad and reunite the family.
Aided by three spirits, the trio travels across the universe via tesseracts — wrinkles in the fabric of space-time. They encounter alien creatures, visit distant worlds, and battle a mind-controlling brain called "It."
Children's fare, sure, but rendered with tremendous skill by the cast and crew. Samantha Bellomo's direction colors the production with equal parts Hollywood sci-fi thriller and disturbing Twilight Zone episode. The production attempts to frighten, and succeeds; when under It's control, Sager widens his eyes and pulls his cheeks into a haunting smile, morphing from nerdy 10-year-old to Children of the Corn creepiness. The ensemble (Pete Pryor, Tom Byrn, Catharine Slusar) play multiple roles amplified into eerie, echoing cacophonies by Aaron Meicht's sound design. Krause and Merrylees leaven the darker overtones with touching moments of budding romance.
Lily Fossner's matrices of light on the floor and scaffolding set carry the action forward across multiple planets, inside imposing skyscrapers, and on elevators that move in all directions. During Sunday evening's performance, the middle-school crowd tucked away their iPhones and sat enthralled by the wizardry of sound and shadow.
Adults, however, might think they're watching a Cold War allegory. The very Christian L'Engle wrote her novel in 1959-60. Glore's adaptation strips the story of its biblical allusions and direct quotations of Bible verse. Meg no longer fights Jesus' battle of light against darkness, but now plays the role of dissident for individual liberty against an evil that enforces conformity through absolute rule, reprocessing camps, and central intelligence.
No doubt these changes make it more multi-culti friendly (Glore's text refers to Mohammed as one of the great fighters for freedom), and enhance the intellectual appeal for adults. But on the ride home, the kids might need a history lesson.
A Wrinkle in Time Through May 20 at People's Light and Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. Tickets: $25-$35. Information: 610-644-3500 or www.peopleslight.org