"If you take a bad boy and make him dig a hole every day in the hot sun, it will turn him into a good boy . . ." This dubious premise fuels the setup for Louis Sachar's award-winning children's book "Holes," which tells the tale of Stanley Yelnats (that's Stanley spelled backward, in case you missed it).
A basically good kid with rotten luck, Stanley is found guilty of a crime he didn't commit. As he serves out his punishment at a correctional camp for troubled youth, sentenced to digging huge holes in the hot desert heat, Stanley's story unfolds as a suspenseful puzzle laced with dark humor and a modicum of magic. Apparently, Stanley's plight has something to do with a longstanding family curse. And what's to become of all those holes, anyway?
Sachar also laces his story with resonant themes. Stanley counters the cruelty and injustice of his fate by developing first-rate survival skills. He and his crew learn the power of teamwork and respect, and Stanley's compassion for one even less fortunate than himself ultimately provides the key to a satisfying tale of redemption.
Sachar adapted his 1998 book into a movie in 2003. His latest adaptation is for the stage, and Wheelock Family Theatre is presenting the New England professional premiere of this nifty work. Except for some character rearrangement, Sachar remains quite faithful to his book, down to long sections of dialogue.
The play effectively mimics the book's fluid back and forth in time. In between charting the grueling daily toil of Stanley and his campmates, the play re-creates interludes from the troubled history of Stanley's family, beginning with the "pig-stealing great-great-grandfather" who unwittingly provoked the gypsy curse. It's sometimes a little disjointed, but the coming together of strands from past and present is one of the story's greatest pleasures.
Wheelock's solid production, ably directed by Susan Kosoff, is well-paced, engaging, and richly textured. The acting is a bit uneven but strong where it counts. Eighth-grader Armando Carlo-Gonzalez is low-key but convincing as Stanley, the boy who is "always in the wrong place at the wrong time" but evolves from pathetic victim to honorable hero. His crewmates from the camp are a lively, rowdy bunch, led by the poor-sighted X-Ray, given a nicely nuanced performance by Cy Brooks. Dan Reulbach is especially touching as the quiet Zero.
Of the adults, standouts include Shelley Bolman as the weaselly counselor Mr. Pendanski and Neil Gustafson in the amplified role of the sunflower seed-spewing Mr. Sir. With his gleefully malicious laugh, dark shades, and cowboy hat, he's a menacing presence. Jeffery Dinan is sweetly affecting as the young immigrant Elya, and Jane Staab is commanding as the old gypsy, Madame Zeroni. Whitney Avalon and Darius Omar Williams are touching as the ill-fated Kate Barlow and Sam. Though there's a little violence that might be troubling for younger kids, it's cursory and more cartoonish in nature than realistic.
Danila Korogodsky's spare, streamlined set design centers on two raked circular platforms with holes into which the boys plunge their shovels. And by the play's conveniently happy ending, those holes are symbols of all that we still don't quite understand. As Madame Zeroni says, "You will have to fill in the holes yourself."