When moving from book medium to play medium, a good adaptation is just as important as good source material. Sadly, this was not the case for Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. Based on Gary D. Schmidt’s depressing Newbery honor-winning book of the same name and adapted by Cheryl L. West, Emerson Stage’s production more often than not goes through the motions of playing Lizzie Bright without actually capturing the spirit of Lizzie Bright.
As in the book, young Turner Ernest Buckminster the Third, the preacher’s boy, feels like a fish out of water when his family moves against his will from Boston to Phippsburg, Maine. Unlike the book, his family consists of just him and his strict father, a widowed minister, since Turner’s mother was written out of existence. Unable to make friends with any of the Phippsburg boys, to the town and his father’s disapproval, Turner ends up befriending Lizzie Bright, a black girl his age who can throw and hit a baseball like no other. She lives on Malaga Island, just across the bay. Unfortunately, the town leaders see Malaga as an eyesore, especially if their plans to turn Phippsburg into a vacation resort are to move ahead.
Along the way, Turner bleeds all over his starched white shirts, looks into the eye of a whale, and is drafted as punishment into reading poetry and playing hymns for Mrs. Cobb–a crotchety old woman obsessed with documenting her last words. This leads up to a scene that’s as hilarious in person as it is on the page. If only the rest of the book’s nuance was retained as well.
In the novel, the men of the town use their influence and subtle arguments to cow Turner’s dad into preaching their agenda to the rest of Phippsburg. In the play, they are blatant villains twirling proverbial mustaches, whom the doormat-like Reverend Buckminster never fully endorses or denies. Turner’s conflict with his father is reduced to whether or not it’s acceptable to disobey the Fifth Commandment and stay friends with Lizzie. In short, Turner’s character arc virtually disappears, and instead of slowly earning his father’s respect, he remains as childish and petulant at the end of the play as he was at the beginning. And because Turner’s father is more concerned with his son’s embarrassing behavior than setting the moral example for his parishioners, when Turner’s father suddenly defies the will of the townspeople (SPOILERS: without dying for what is right), it feels both unmonumental and out of character.
Despite an unsatisfactory adaptation, the costumes and the set designs looked very professional. Though the cast of Emerson theater students were roughly all the same age, Stephanie Couturier and Devin Holloway deserve special mention for playing the older characters, Mrs. Cobb and Lizzie’s grandfather, respectively, so convincingly. The cast proved to be fine singers as well, effectively using gospel songs to cover the scene changes. To our surprise, the play tried to force a happy ending on us with the deceased Reverend Griffin leading the entire cast in a rousing rendition of My Lord, What a Morning! This upbeat conclusion only reinforced our feeling that this production was depressing in many ways, except in the ones that really mattered.