The Smartest Girl in the World, Imagination Stage’s first production in its 2017-18 season, feels like it should be called The Best Siblings in the World. Throughout most of the play, Leo and Lizzy Martinez display the kind of selfless acts of sibling kindness that make rare appearances in my own household.
Second-grader Lizzy is irrepressible and bubbly and loves watching soapy telenovelas. Her 6th-grade brother Leo is serious and responsible. Their parents work the late shift and it’s up to him to get Lizzy ready for bed and be the comforter from night fears until his mom gets off from her diner waitress job at 2 a.m. He studies relentlessly so that he can become wildly successful and give his family a better life – and a trip to Hawaii for a vacation relaxing in the sun.
Part of his plan involves winning the Challenge quiz show on TV. Lizzy, their cousin Hector, and Lizzy’s friend Cheryl aren’t surprised when Leo secures a spot on the school Challenge team. But when he excitedly tells his parents, they absolutely refuse to let him do it.
It turns out Leo has a chronic illness – which we later learn is sickle cell anemia – that makes his parents particularly protective of his health. They tell him the demands of traveling required of the Challenge team would be too much for his fragile constitution.
His disappointment is heartbreaking, though you can’t blame his parents for wanting to shelter him.
Loyal to the end, Lizzy decides she’s going to study doggedly every day to make it onto the Challenge team, go on TV, win the money so they can all go to Hawaii, and make Leo proud of her. Second-graders aren’t eligible to compete, though, so she studies all summer and – in Act 2 – finds herself a more studious, less playful third grader who has just won a spot on the Challenge team.
But instead of being happy, Leo is resentful and jealous. He refuses to say more than 10 words to her a day.
Dejected, Lizzy considers giving up – until her aunt gives her a pep talk over a glass of Big Red soda. Will she win the nailbiting Challenge quiz show? Will her brother ever talk to her again?
The play explores what it’s like to be a kid in a world where you feel powerless to pursue your dreams, a world where limitations you don’t quite understand are put on your hopes and plans. Yet what triumphs at the end of the play is not the amassing of facts but the courage of imagination: daring to believe you can be a quiz show champion – or the type of person who vacations in Hawaii.
I took only my youngest kid with me to this show, but I wish I’d taken my older two kids as well. I’d love for them to see how Leo and Lizzy work together to overcome obstacles and help each other out. I think my oldest would also empathize with Leo, who puts pressure on himself to always study hard and be at the top of his class.
My five-year-old might not have understood all the nuances of this show (the theater recommends this play for ages 6 and up) but she loved the setting, which was a cozy bedroom in a Texas city (she wanted to get up on stage and jump on the bed), and she got anxious when Lizzy and Leo were arguing – so I could tell she was invested in the story. The only “scary” part of the show was during a dream sequence when a dragon emerges to fight Lizzy, and my five-year-old moved a little closer to me in her seat.
The play’s director, Kathryn Chase Bryer, uses a much-tweeted quote from Einstein in her Director’s Notes: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” But she goes on to include the fuller quote: “For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
There’s definitely an evolution that happens for both Leo and Lizzy through the course of the play. But the strength of family remains unchanging.
WHAT TO KNOW
- The Smartest Girl in the World runs through October 29. Tickets range from $12 to $30. A limited number of $10 tickets are available on Mondays at 10:00 a.m. for the following week’s performances. Must be purchased through the Box Office. Call early; limited tickets available.
- Imagination Stage recommends the play best for ages 6 and up.
- The production runs an hour and a half with a 10-minute intermission.
- There is metered parking in the public parking garage next door, parking is free on weekends. The closest Metro is Bethesda on the Red Line.
Photo credit: Margot Schulman.