The imagination is a magical place inhabited mostly by children and a few lucky adults. Playwright Miriam Gonzalez, a young writer from South Texas with several productions under her belt, celebrates the purity and magic of children’s dreams and storytelling in “The Smartest Girl in the World.”
The play, on the Imagination Stage through Oct. 29, introduces audiences to Leo, age 12, and his sister, Lizzy, 8, siblings that are incredibly close, taking care of each other and keeping themselves entertained while their parents work hard to support them. When they hatch a scheme to enter Leo into a TV quiz show competition, their relationship is put to the test, and Lizzy learns what it really means to be smart.
“I was inspired by children and their resiliency,” Gonzalez said. “I used to be a classroom teacher in Alexandria, Va. It was like a mini-United Nations—very diverse—lots of kids of immigrants, immigrants themselves, and I was just sort of astounded by their resilience.” Their parents worked around the clock to support the family, Gonzalez said, and whenever these kids talked about their home life, it was about “getting on a little stepstool to get to the stove, cooking, putting their siblings to bed, and then doing their homework on top of it,” she recounted with admiration. “That’s what they have to do, and they figure out systems and plans to make it work…and in a very innocent way,” adding emphatically, “It’s fun—there’s nothing tragic about it—it’s just what they do.”
“I also drew a lot from my own childhood in South Texas, a working-class family,” Gonzalez admitted. “My parents were born here, but my grandparents were not. My grandfather worked three jobs. Education was the most important thing to them–to make sure their children went to college and became professionals. That message stuck through the generations.”
In the play, Leo is an excellent student and takes his hard-working parents’ words of advice to hear: education is the way to a successful life. Lizzy is a good student as well, and she is also a brilliant storyteller with a vibrant fantasy life. “[Lizzy] has a huge imagination,” Gonzalez said. “She pretends to be a princess or a TV star. Her creative imagination is her strength, [and the siblings] have these pretend times and tell each other stories.”
Lizzy’s fantasies are brought to life throughout the production. Using lighting, music and costumes, the audience experiences Lizzy’s inner life, set to an original “amazing sort of ‘Game of Thrones’-like adventure” score by Tim Guillot, Director Kathryn Chase Bryer explained. “It’s funny and it’s sweet. [Miriam] has a great sense of theatricality in that she’s created this little girl who has a fabulous imagination, and she has these fantasies. I’ve worked really hard on that aspect of the play because that makes it a play and not a TV special.”
Everything is going great for Lizzy and Leo until they come up with the idea of entering Leo into a quiz show contest. The siblings know he’s smarter than the other kids and will win! But Leo has a serious illness, and his parents say no, the show would be too much for him. He is devastated, so Lizzy decides to study hard and take his place, win the contest and prove she is the smartest girl in the world.
“She’s trying to help her older brother,” Chase Bryer said. “She mistakenly thinks that she’s going to save the day by doing it for him.” Unfortunately for Lizzy, brother Leo is not happy with her idea to take his place in the contest, even though she means well. It affects their bond, and Lizzy is faced with a decision: what’s more important—being the smartest girl in the world (aka quiz show winner) or making her brother’s feelings a priority.
“It’s highly emotional and dramatic. I have really great actors,” Chase Bryer said of the all-Latino adult cast, “and I have asked them to not hold back. Children feel a hundred percent, and they sometimes feel stronger emotions than we do as adults …It’s intense, but I think it’s good, and kids will really understand. I think it’s respectful of the way they truly feel.”
“So many kids today are caught up in the idea of being rich, being famous,” she continued, “so for those kids who aren’t necessarily struggling [financially], they [too must] realize or come to realize that family is the most important thing, no matter what you have or don’t have.”
“Those things in our society right now—kindness and family and love—are what really matter,” Gonzalez said. “My hope in writing it is that [audiences will understand] that the values of family and love are what get you through. And that’s what really makes you smart.”
Miriam Gonzales’ “The Smartest Girl in the World” is at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda, through Oct. 29. Recommended for age 6-plus. Tickets range from $12 to $30. Call 301-280-1660 or visit http://imaginationstage.org. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.