Miss Nelson is Missing
Attending TheatreWorks’ opening night presentation of Miss Nelson is Missing felt like getting to swim a little bit in my own childhood. After all, the book on which the play is based was one of my beloved favorites.
As a freshman English teacher at the University of Nevada, Reno and a frequent volunteer in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom, I think this timeless story about the importance of maintaining discipline in the classroom—and of appreciating good teachers—still holds up as a classic. So I had high hopes that this production would do it justice. I was not disappointed.
Miss Nelson is a pushover. Played by Meredith Martin, she is sweet and puzzlingly indulgent with her tyrannical students in Room 207, despite their name-calling, blatant disregard of rules, inability to add 1 + 1 or spell “spell,” and tendency to hold her captive while they take extended recesses.
They include nerdy Raymond (Zach Golden), the headgear-wearing nervous wreck, Phoebe (Veronika Fitzmier), meathead George (Brandon Butler), ditzy aspiring supermodel Kimberly (Amy Miecznikowski), the king-wannabe Elvis (Gianna Detomaso), backtalking spitfire Lavita (Hana Altenburg) and the troublemaking tomboy Mavis (Lily Marenghi), who insists on being called “Mouse.”
The unruly seven are running Miss Nelson’s classroom, and everyone, including Principal Humleker (Dirk Miller), has noticed.
But on Monday, Miss Nelson doesn’t show up for class, and no one seems to know where she is. What’s worse is that the anti-Nelson has taken her place. Miss Viola Swamp (Juli Fair), with her crooked nose and wart, evil laugh, frequent ruler slaps, and obvious delight at giving hundreds of pages of homework, has all but convinced the students she’s a witch.
Now they’ll do anything—even study for their upcoming test and hire a private detective—to find Miss Nelson. And they swear to never take her for granted again.
Costuming and set design in this production are really lovely, from the little inspirational posters hanging on the classroom walls and assorted teaching tools on shelves to Miss Swamp’s crazy wig—which looks disturbingly like the book’s illustrations—and Phoebe’s headgear, which, unfortunately, was another thing that transported me to my own childhood.
Martin is perfectly cast as the pleasantly clueless Miss Nelson, and Ty Hunt is hilarious as the stupid Detective McSmogg, who couldn’t find a missing person if she bit him. I also admired Fair for employing her deepest, most gravelly voice in the role of Miss Swamp.
Though perhaps it was not as imposing as I may have imagined, the children in the audience seemed visibly moved by it. My own throat had sympathy pains as I watched her.
But the real stars here are the teens cast as Miss Nelson’s students, who are consistently and cleverly funny—in particular, Detomaso’s Elvis elicited chuckles from me throughout the show, with her mature sense of comedic timing.
Music selections throughout the show add to the tone of certain scenes—take, for instance, the use of the theme from the end credits of Poltergeist as Miss Nelson sits grading papers at her desk and bracing herself for the misery to come when her students arrive.
The musical numbers written for the show are a bit awkward, I admit, and the show might be better off without them. However, they are a minor part of the play, and take nothing away from the actors’ performances.
In all, it’s a family-friendly show that may just prompt you to thank a teacher.