As a kid, right around the time my nightstand was stacked with Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys novels, I remember asking my mom why she became a teacher. She told me that as a teenage girl in the 1960s, she had three career options: secretary, nurse or educator.
I didn’t get it.
Those are fine paths, but I struggled to grasp why girls’ options were so limited. If an albeit-fictional teenager like Nancy Drew could unravel even the most tangled crimes, why couldn’t a real-life woman pursue any career?
Time has largely resolved that issue; women, hopefully, feel like they can choose any career. But the prescient message behind the Nancy Drew books, first published in the 1930s, is still relevant. Which is why children who attend the Theatre of Youth’s production of “Nancy Drew & the Mystery at Lilac Inn” won’t just be entertained.
They might just be empowered, too.
In the story, Nancy (played by Kerisa Yvonne Bonville) tries to recover stolen jewels that are the inheritance of her friend, Emily Crandall (Maria Droz). Nancy and her sidekick Helen (Danica Riddick) follow clues that crescendo in a clash with Mary Mason, portrayed in delightfully diabolical fashion by Arin Lee Dandes.
My 8-year-old daughter, Taryn, accompanied me to the play, which is based on Kenneth Shaw’s adaptation of the Carolyn Keene novel. The Shaw version is especially friendly to kids because, unlike the book, it flashes back to the crime scene and shows it from different perspectives. This allows the young audience members to think like detectives. (Confession: Taryn figured out the mystery before I did.)
Shaw, also TOY’s longtime head of design, gave director Meg Quinn’s cast a movable, multifaceted set on which to tell the story. Stagehands rotated flooring and flipped walls to create a half-dozen settings, including the crime scene at the Lilac Inn, the grungy ghetto of Dockville, a 14-foot boat that rocks like an oversize playground ride, and the neat home shared by Nancy and her father, the famous crime-fighting lawyer Carson Drew (Darryl Hart).
That father-daughter bond is no small detail in this and other Nancy Drew tales. Nancy is the woman of the house (she lost her mother as a little girl), and her father places enormous faith in her. He encourages Nancy to adopt cases as her own, prods her with questions about the clues, and gives her the freedom to chase down leads.
In the “Lilac Inn” story, for instance, a reluctant Carson ultimately relents and allows Nancy to drive her blue convertible (crafted of papier-maché and powered Flintstones-style by actress Bonville’s feet) into sketchy Dockville after dark.
With my little girl sitting next to me, I’m admittedly biased on this, but the father-daughter bond resonated.
Hart, whether wearing a professorial sweater in the Drew household or a James Bond-like tuxedo at a formal event, convincingly pulls off his loving father role. Bonville, has a powerful presence as the independent-minded daughter, particularly when she squints her eyes and casts her detective glare into the audience, as if searching for the next clue.
Bonville has a sharp eye when the show is over, too. One of the mainstays of TOY productions is the cast talk-back that follows every show. During these Q&A sessions, director Quinn roams the audience with a microphone, but it’s impossible to call on every raised hand.
Taryn’s question didn’t get asked, but when she approached Bonville after the show for an autograph, the actress said to her, “I noticed you had a question. Do you want to ask me now?”
Smiling, Taryn asked where the actors hide their microphones. Bonville pointed to a tiny mic taped just below where her blonde wig meets her brunette hairline, and explained the wiring and receivers.
Not a bad way to win fans – of children and their parents.
After the show, Taryn said, “I liked it so much, I want to go back!” Then she grasped my hand and pulled me into the lobby to buy a copy of the “Lilac Inn” novel.
Looks like the Nancy Drew books are back in our household.
What: “Nancy Drew & the Mystery at Lilac Inn”
Where: Theatre of Youth, 203 Allen St.
When: Through Feb. 16
Tickets: $26 and $28