There's no doubt that Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy deals with important issues that still swirl around our society today, from racism and the assumed inferiority of the "other" to the interplay between economic development and the rights of longtime landholders. It's also certainly true that the show features a talented cast who bring a lot to the table in this Children's Theatre Company production.
What I couldn't shake was the feeling that I was being lectured about the events and the underlying impact instead of absorbing the issues naturally. There's a lot of good heart here, I just wish it could have been more of the focus. The play, an adaption by Cheryl L. West of Gary D. Schmidt's novel, takes us back a century to coastal Maine. A new minister has come to town with his teenage son in tow. They find an area full of the usual politics and longstanding feuds.
At the heart of the play is an unlikely friendship between the son, Turner, and Lizzie Bright, a resident of nearby Malaga Island. The town folk want to raze the community that has existed there for more than a century as part of a plan to build a resort to jump start the local economy. As their friendship deepens, Turner doesn't see it that way -- he sees people about to be forced out of their homes primarily because they are the wrong color.
Running in concert with this storyline is Turner's -- and his father's -- grief over his late mother. The good reverend has pushed aside all of his emotions about her, acting cold and disapproving at every turn to his son.
That element -- especially the interplay between actors Sam Bardwell as Turner and Lee Mark Nelson as the Reverend -- is Lizzie Bright at its best. The politics don't play out as cleanly. It's not only that what the townsfolk did to the residents is appalling -- some islanders ended up in mental hospitals as a way to get them off the land -- but that the story treats them as two-dimensional baddies, never truly delving into their motivations.
The whole production feels overly fussy, even on G.W. Mercier's minimalist set. The constant scene changes are a bit of a drag on the action, as is the muddy section in the middle of act two that seems to halt the story in its tracks when it should be picking up steam.
Also, as much as I liked Bardwell's performance, the actor doesn't have the youthful look to pull off an early teenager. His actions aren't out of nature for a young boy on the cusp between childhood and adolescence. It's just off putting when the actor appears to be of an age where he should know better.
All is not lost, however. Other members of the company do a good job, including Traci Allen as Lizzie; Ansa Akyea as Lizzie's grandfather, Reverend Griffin; and Autumn Ness as the bitter, old lady who -- not surprisingly -- has a warmer heart than most of the others around town.
Meanwhile over the Parkway Theatre, the sometimes forgotten contributions of Chicanos to our state's development, growth and culture are on full display.
Mixed Blood's Minnecanos also wants to educate the audience, but the show is upfront about that from the beginning. The piece is an hour-long celebration of the Mexican-American experience in Minnesota, centering on a north Minneapolis family. Patriarch Diego explains his life and experiences to his great-grandson Jimmy, telling stories, singing songs, and generally reminding us of the rich cultural background in our state.
While the songs are a bit rough, the performers in Joe Minjares's play are game for whatever is thrown their way, and they quickly draw you into their world. A lot of the credit should be given to Pedro Bayon and Ricardo Vazquez as Diego and Jimmy, who have a strong chemistry together, and to director Raul Ramos, who moves it all along with a breezy, bright style that makes it easy to forget that we're learning while we're watching. It's just a shame that Minnecanos won't reach some of the audiences that really could do with a history lesson, like the political leadership in Arizona.
IF YOU GO
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy
Children's Theatre Company 2400 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis Through April 8
For information and tickets, call 612.874.0400 or visit online