BWW Interviews: Two First Stage Young Performers Portray Nancy Drew, An Icon of Independent Women

BWW Interviews: Two First Stage Young Performers Portray Nancy Drew, An Icon of Independent Women

When the iconic character Nancy Drew was launched in 1930, her books illuminating the mysteries she solved immediately sold out. To date, more than 80 million copies have been sold world wide, published in over 70 languages, together tied to numerous other media or merchandising franchises connected to her fame. Recently Entertainment Weekly named Nancy Drew 17th on their top 20 list of heroes because she is often considered one of the first models for the true heroine.

To honor this incredible legacy, Milwaukee's First Stage (FS), presents a world premiere in the Todd Wehr Theater on May 2: Nancy Drew and Her Biggest Case Ever. The new play co-written by FS Artistic Director Jeff Frank and FS Associate Artistic Director John Maclay becomes the 50th world premiere produced by First Stage in the last 26 years, and coalesces the men's combined notes from reading over 30 stories from the legendary mystery series. In Frank and Maclay's final script, the production will intermingle Nancy Drew's The Bungalow Mystery with The Quest of the Missing Map.

These two creative partners culled their vision of Nancy Drew from the original ghostwriter Margaret Wirt Benson, who penned the books under the name Carloyn Keene, and was in her 20's when she first invented the voice of the ingenious 16-year old sleuth, a smart feminine MacGyver before he was a televison cult favorite. What evolved was a confident and independent young woman, a woman ahead of her time. Nancy's opinions were valued, trusted by her attorney father Carson Drew, her friends Bess and George, and often her Emerson College boyfriend, Ned Nickerson.

Since Nancy's mother died when she was 10 in the original novels, a motherly housekeeper Hannah Gruen oversaw the two remaining Drews through their various adventures. Gruen worried,, although permitted Nancy the freedom to solve her mysteries and allowed her to continue taking risks. Frank commented, "Nancy has the power to do things on her own, and finds a way to make a difference... right some wrongs along the way."

"First Stage always looks for strong female characters that can lead an adventure," Frank continues. "This is about a women's ability, a women's mind and what problems she can solve and then what she can do. There are some great fight sequences [in the production]...She's a lady and yet every bit as tough as nails...and can't be pigeonholed. Nancy actively tries to find ways to rescue people who need help instead of asking to be rescued, actively involved in social justice."

Perhaps in a contemporary society more obsessed with a women's outward appearances and their sexuality than ever before, young girls hold on to Nancy's adventures as a beacon of what women would wish to do in their lives. Character qualities they would ask to be admired and respected for even while women appreciate being complimented on their physical qualities. They might be more impressed if men, anyone, noticed their abilities to change the world, their courage and intelligence, and how often women rescue people, too.

Two of the young performers from the First Stage Theater Academy, Amanda Desimowich (age 17) and Madison Penzkover (age 16) accepted the challenge of recreating Nancy Drew, that amazing sleuth of heroic proportions. Desimowich explained she loved the character, "Because she's independent, courageous, very true and loyal, modest, confident, and does what she does for the greater good."

In this day and age of questionable or tasteless facebook and twitter posts or selfie photos, Nancy Drew embodies a strong antidote to technological seclusion and self absorption. Panzkover read Nancy Drew when she was younger, reread them for playing this role, and collects a stockpile of her stories. She then added, "Nancy never worries about her safety. She sees a problem and can't ignore the problem. And she never expects men or someone older to fix the problem. She's very self-sufficient and even changes her own tires [on her car]."

Desimowich mentioned her grandmother, now 78, gifted her some of the original copies of Nancy Drew mysteries, which both women read voraciously. Nancy Drew's enduring legend stretches multiple generations while re-releases of the older stories still make the best seller list decades later.

Both young women spoke to Nancy Drew's affection for her two friends, Bess and George, as opposed to how feminine friendships may be observed today. Nancy and her friends trust each other completely, are proud of each other's accomplishment, and demonstrate a true camaraderie as opposed to any competition between each other.

In an interesting sidenote, these young teenagers commented women still face societal disadvantages and some hidden discrimination. Penzkover says, "Nancy Drew still relates a message for independence. Women have made some gains but this is a positive message we can do what needs to be done."

Desimowich adds, "For the most part, women are still making the choice between careers and kids. And we notice the subtle inferences that men have advantages or can do things we can't do in our lives, every day."

Desimowich and Penzkover open playing Nancy Drew May 2 in Milwaukee's Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in this much anticipated and exciting world premiere with an original score composed by Willy Porter. Under Jeff Frank's direction, Nancy Drew appears in her 1930's persona traveling in the blue roadster convertible. He admits to believing, "I am optimistic that if young men will walk away with a deeper appreciation for what women can do, that will be awesome."

Frank also quotes award winning mystery author Nancy Pickard, who wrote her own feminine tales inspired by Nancy Drew: "Nancy Drew, especially the Nancy Drew of the original story, is our bright heroine, chasing down the shadows, conquering our worst fears, giving us a glimpse of our brave and better selves, proving to everybody how admirable and wonderful a thing it is to be a girl."

First Stage presents the world premiere of Nancy Drew and Her Biggest Case Ever at the Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts through June 1. For information or tickets, please call 414.267.2961 or

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Peggy Sue Dunigan Peggy Sue Dunigan earned a BA in Fine Art, a MA in English and then finished with a Masters of Fine Art in Creative Fiction from Pine Manor College, Massachusetts. Currently she independently writes for multiple publications on the culinary, performance and visual arts or works on her own writing projects while also teaching college English and Research Writing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her other creative energy emerges by baking cakes and provincial sweets from vintage recipes so when in the kitchen, at her desk, either drawing or writing, or enjoying evenings at any and all theaters, she strives to provide satisfying memories for the body and soul.


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