Why do good people have to die? That's what my third-grade daughter wanted to know after seeing the premiere of "Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy" at the Children's Theatre. The play's answer: so that people who are now behaving badly can ultimately find their good.
"Lizzie," which premiered Friday in Minneapolis, is gorgeous, poignant and problematic. I was moved more than once by Peter Brosius' mystical production of the drama that Cheryl West adapted from Gary Schmidt's young adult book. The cast, led by angel-voiced Traci Allen and physically deft Sam Bardwell, is superb. All members of the ensemble work seamlessly to make this well designed play (set by G.W. Mercier, costumes by Amelia Cheever and lights by Paul Whitaker) affecting.
But some of the production's content was really unsettling, especially to my youthful theater companion.
In its beautiful telling of an ugly, history-based story, "Lizzie" uses "monkey," for example, as an unredeemed epithet, a choice that raises questions without adding anything to the show.
"Lizzie" is set a century ago -- 1912 -- in coastal Maine, where Turner Buckminster III, 13, who is white and motherless, has just relocated with his father, a man of the cloth. They have come from Boston just as the Maine authorities have decided that the black and mixed-race population of nearby Malaga Island should be uprooted. Outsider Turner (Bardwell), who can't seem to stay out of trouble, strikes up a friendship with spunky islander Lizzie (Allen), who also is 13, even as his father and the town elders disapprove.
The direction, design and performances are what make this show remarkable. Allen, who was part of the national tour of "The Color Purple" and also starred in "Five Fingers of Funk" at the Children's Theatre, imbues Lizzie with sass and openness. She finds her character's strength and tenderness, both in acting and in her delivery of tear-tugging atmospheric spirituals. Bardwell gives good-natured Turner a gangly physicality and grace. Autumn Ness gives a winning performance as fuddy-duddy Mrs. Cobb, as does Ansa Akyea as gently righteous Rev. Griffin. Rev. Buckminster is a bit underdeveloped, yet Lee Mark Nelson works to make him sympathetic.
Besides the dubious terminology, the play left me with a number of questions about the story. The people of Malaga must have faced other challenges in the generations that they have lived, died and buried their loved ones on the island. Where is their fight? Are they just resigned, like sleepy, white-haired Rev. Griffin, to being evicted? Or do they have the spunk that Lizzie first showed? But those were adult questions.