With all the recent publicity about school shootings, a story about a classroom terrorized by a sadistic, witchy substitute teacher seems quaintly anachronistic -- no Goth makeup, no consciences deadened by video-game violence, just disruptive little tykes who love recess and hate homework. I couldn't help but wonder how many other adults who sat in the audience of Miss Nelson Is Missing, presented by Dallas Children's Theatre, were thinking about this and sending a silent prayer of thanks that the kids they had in tow were being reintroduced to a concept -- a teacher holding a vice-like control over her classroom -- that, we are told ad nauseam, does not reflect their reality.
Miss Nelson Is Missing was adapted from Harry Allard's book by Jeffrey Hatcher, whose prolific adaptations for the adult stage, including his marvelous two-person version of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, evince a wicked playfulness and a fairy-tale manipulation of time and identity. Maybe seeing Hatcher's name attached here, I was hoping for a bit more of that sly unpredictability. As is, DCT's Miss Nelson Is Missing is a perfectly serviceable, not-as-smart-as-it-could-be look at how a rowdy crowd of grade-schoolers (played here by adults Derik Webb, Lane Pianta, David Joy, Amy Shoults, Kelly Abbott, Kate Blackstone, and Karl Schaeffer) are whipped into whimpering submission when their pushover teacher Miss Nelson (Linda Daugherty) is replaced by the wart-bedecked, sour-faced, cackling Miss Swamp (also Daugherty), who assigns homework by the pound and refuses them recess and story-time privileges. It's comic aversion therapy, of course -- the kids buckle down and study to get Miss Swamp off their backs, meanwhile conducting a nighttime search to locate their suddenly beloved Miss Nelson.
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The cast members of Miss Nelson Is Missing, under the direction of Nancy Shaeffer, range from inspired (Lane Pianta as Raymond makes a surprisingly touching geek hero as he plumbs unexpected resources in the hunt for the teacher he never appreciated) to the annoying (Karl Schaeffer as Elvis, who admittedly gets the most laughs here but started to fray my nerves with a show-long impersonation of the King). In the dual role of Miss Nelson and Miss Swamp, Daugherty also reflects extremes of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. I wanted to see her Miss Nelson be less sad-sack and more obliviously dippy a la the hilarious, zoned-out expression of bliss she wears on the "Missing" poster that graces the program cover. Meanwhile, her Viola Swamp was a lot more to my tastes, with a voice and a wide-legged stride like Marjorie Main and a malicious pleasure in forcing geography and arithmetic down the throats of her tender young charges. This performance reflected the kind of irreverent invention that can be found in Louis Sachar's Sideways Stories From Wayside School -- one of my favorite books as a kid -- that never falls out of favor with young ones. If our classrooms have indeed turned into war zones, I'd hate for parents and educators to react by taking security measures against their kids' imaginations -- one of the few places where nasty things happen to nasty people in deliciously nasty ways, and we can all feel better for it.