Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, November 2002
The Largest Elizabeth in the World is a one-act play by Stephen Gregg about a dysfunctional family whose younger daughter grows to be 50 feet tall, although she later settles for life at a mere 17 feet. While I understood at various points where Gregg was trying to go with this idea, I never really understood why or when we got there. After the first scene Elizabeth’s mother dies of cancer, a disease in which the cells of the body grow uncontrollably, and yet Elizabeth’s growth is not presented as life threatening. Analogies are drawn between the stigma of being overweight with the freakishness of being excessively tall, but they are not carried through.
Elizabeth’s growth is caused when she finds the strength to stand up to her abusive and self-deluded father, and, conversely, she finds that she can shrink, a la Alice in Wonderland, when she docilely agrees with him. There are plenty of tantalizing themes here – physical growth caused by emotional growth, controlling the body by controlling thought, the adolescent need to defy and separate from the parent juxtaposed with the parent’s need to retain ownership and control of their offspring. How many myths and legends are built on the inevitability of the child usurping the parent? If only Gregg had dared to give this story that power because it would have been refreshing to see that type of tale told with a female protagonist.
But despite my quibbles with the wandering and unfinished quality of the script, the Drury Drama Team inaugurates their newly refurbished theatre with an energetic and imaginative production of The Largest Elizabeth in the World. Gregg writes specifically for adolescent performers, and the Drama Team, under the direction of Dr. Len Radin, obviously enjoy the world he has created for them.
The small cast is ably headed by sophomore Danielle Oakes as Elizabeth Martin, and freshman Charlie Manuel as her boyfriend, Joseph Minassian. Oakes is appealing and unaffected in the title role, and Manuel all but steals the show as the timid, love-struck Joe. It is good to see a talented and willing young man on the Drury stage, which has been dominated by powerhouse female performers for too long.
The only other male in this cast is Michael Hitchcock as Elizabeth’s father, Frank Martin. Hitchcock gives a winning performance in an unsympathetic and muddled role, but I am not clear from his program bio whether he is a Drury student. There is nothing wrong with bringing in outside talent, but I am in favor of more Drury boys, like Manuel, getting involved with the Drama Team before outsiders are brought in.
Drama Team vets Sarah Simon (Annie Sullivan in last year’s production of The Miracle Worker) and Marissa Parker continue their illustrious careers on the Drury stage. Simon is tragically daffy in the opening scene as the doomed Mrs. Martin, after whom Elizabeth is named. And Parker oozes sex appeal as Mrs. Parnell, the new neighbor who rekindles Frank Martin’s love life.
I have failed to mention Katherine Kennedy as Elizabeth’s sister Amanda through no fault of her own. I do not understand who Amanda is and what Gregg is trying to accomplish by her presence in the play. Kennedy flounces about, guarding her diary and being convincingly jealous of her enormous “little” sister, but the character is not written well enough for me to care.
There is no set designer listed in the program, so I am assuming that Dr. Radin and the able construction crew came up with the innovative set themselves. The set cleverly establishes rules of height and distance that work admirably in the later scenes when Elizabeth is 17 feet tall and taller. Special effects are achieved in a highly effective and affordable low-tech manner that is refreshing to see in this day of stage spectaculars that are often beyond the budget and abilities of a highs school drama troupe. I got a particular kick out of the way Joe and Elizabeth’s long-awaited first kiss was handled (you’ll just have to see it for yourself). I also enjoyed the authentically decorated set for Elizabeth and Amanda’s shared bedroom.
Teenagers do often feel as if their bodies are growing out of control — we all remember vividly being the tallest or the shortest or the first to wear a bra or the last shave. No one is ever happy with their bodies, before, during, or after adolescence, but most of us learn to live with what we get, and, indeed, Elizabeth comes to appreciate the advantages of being 17 feet tall, even though she has the ability to return to a “normal” size.
It is a credit to Dr. Radin and the Drama Team that they were able to make me enjoy this minor work by a minor playwright. I hope they return to the stage soon in a major play that displays all of their talents to better advantage.
The Drury Drama Team production of Stephen Gregg’s The Largest Elizabeth in the World runs November 21-23 at 7 p.m. at Drury Senior High School (413-662-3240), 1130 South Church Street (Rt. 8A) in North Adams. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission and is suitable for the whole family.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2002