Nashville Children’s Theatre has inaugurated the fall season with one of its finer efforts in recent years. A top-notch cast under the vibrant direction of Scot Copeland serves up a consistently fascinating rendition of Louis Sachar’s Holes, based on his award-winning novel for young adults.
Sachar’s story has all the elements of a really good piece of adventure fiction, not unlike the work of genre master Robert Louis Stevenson. Yet the setting here is essentially contemporary, and instead of pirates, the show’s teenage protagonist, Stanley Yelnats IV, finds himself cast away among peers at a boys’ detention center in a remote part of Texas.
Stanley, played by Ross Brooks in one of his better NCT performances, captures our sympathy immediately. He’s got gumption, but he’s also a little naive, and when he’s unjustly remanded to Camp Green Lake, a victim of a wrongheaded paternalistic system, we know his short-term prospects don’t look good.
This is confirmed quickly when Mr. Sir (Jeremy Childs), the authoritative overseer, makes it clear that Stanley will be digging holes all day in the hot sun. Furthermore, the lad’s fellow internees are a hardheaded, contentious bunch, and Stanley is faced with unpleasant peer pressure and name-calling, none of it designed to build up his fragile psyche.
The mystery of just why the boys are digging holes becomes the play’s focal point, but long before that puzzle is resolved, we’re swept into involving, sometimes humorous flashbacks that clue us in to the Yelnats family legacy of lost love, stolen money, immigration to America and adventure in the Old West. Sachar’s script seamlessly weaves these scenes in and out of the firsthand drama, and, with director Copeland’s efficient pacing, strong players such as Jenny Littleton, Evelyn Blythe, John Brooks and Josh Childs work this counter-story to terrific effect. At times, the background tale even rivals the main story in capturing the audience’s imagination.
The cast is filled out by a host of actors portraying Stanley’s campmates. Akil Lyle, Matt Mellon, Pete Vann, Robert Marigza and Jon Royal make for a fine ensemble of “lost boys,” and they deftly make the transition from nasty, smart-mouthed, insecure adolescents to respectful young men who learn about the importance of integrity and friendship per Stanley’s example.
Holes is, without question, one of the more imaginative and engrossing modern tales for young people. It was successfully adapted for film by Disney a few years ago, and the original novel continues to earn fans. The stage version certainly holds up on its own merits, and the NCT creative team supplies colorful settings, costumes and sound effects to help jazz up the audiovisual feel for today’s sophisticated young audiences. Sound designer Dan Brewer has also put together an interesting aural backdrop that features snippets of folk music, contemporary country pop, some swampy slide guitar, and even an excerpt of Bernard Herrmann’s tense, driving string motif from the movie Psycho.
Best of all, Holes teaches lessons—about good and bad, right and wrong, and even racial equality—that will resonate with viewers of all ages. This production’s a real winner, and it finds NCT back on the beam with progressive, thoughtful fare that wholly engages its audience without talking down to it.