Imagine a female Dead Poets Society without the encouraging teacher where “carpe diem” is replaced by “living in the moment.”
Following Sarah is skillfully written by Baltimore playwright Rich Espey, who works in themes ranging from the proper role of parents to the value of Buddhist philosophy, and Venus Theatre makes creative use of monitors to display footage of blog posts, news, and the school’s video catalogue.
Sarah Gardner (Kelsey Painter) seemed to have it all. Smart, pretty, and a star athlete with the nation’s top colleges competing to offer her scholarships. No one suspected she was unhappy despite the fact that the night before the state championship meet where she was the favorite, she asked some of her teammates “Would it be okay with you if I didn’t win tomorrow?”
Nearly a year later the other cross-country runners are having a hard time dealing with Sarah’s death. Kat (Ann Fraistat), the new team captain, tries to take over as Alpha Girl by keeping team traditions alive and pushing the other runners. She starts a website where video tributes to Sarah can be posted although it seems she is doing it more out of duty and the need to strengthen her college applications than out of close personal affection. Her goal is to win an athletic scholarship by beating Sarah’s time and leading the team to a successful defense of their state cross-country championship.
Kat’s roommate Maddie (Katie Jeffries) is the one who pushes herself hardest academically. She takes pills so she can study longer and more efficiently in an attempt to please her parents. She cuts out pink footprints and writes inspirational saying on them, then distributes them to the other girls for each meet. She feels increasing pressure as the deadline approaches for her to complete her project of finding mathematical formulas to explain the flight patterns of moths.
Julia (Czarina Joy Flores) is the wisecracking member of the team, a Chinese girl adopted by Jewish parents so she “counts double” in adding to the school’s diversity. She runs in an attempt to lose those stubborn ten pounds. Her wish list includes having plastic surgery on her eyes so she will better fit in.
Julia’s new roommate is Kenya, an African American student who is new to the school. She misses her mother, worries about whether she can pass her classes, and is freaked out upon learning that she now sleeps in a dead girl’s bed. She has problems fitting in and sometimes thinks about running away from the school.
Closes April 28, 2013
Venus Theatre Play Shack
21 C Street
2 hours, 5 minutes with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
While the girls can be described as types, Espey uses his high school teaching background to give each character enough detail to make them interesting. The more fully written female parts are those of Kat and Maddie. Fraistat takes charge in her role, while revealing an underlying love-hate relationship with Sarah. Jeffries takes a fairly extreme character and imbues her with enough humanity to earn the audience’s empathy. Homer and Flores also give fine realistic performances and James Jager capably handles multiple male roles, most notably as Sarah’s grieving father.
As usual, director Deborah Randall does a fine job utilizing her intimate space for a variety of scenes such as girls in the dorm rooms, several race scenes that criss-cross the audience, and the use of a pair of video monitors to convey messages. She also helps make the interactions of the students feel very natural and personal.
Every parent and teacher wants to see children achieve their potential. Yet the Venus Theatre production of Following Sarah offers a cautionary note about the pressures that high school students can face. It is a new work that is both interesting and thoughtful.
Following Sarah by Rich Espey . Directed by Deborah Randall . Produced by Venus Theatre Company . Reviewed by Steven McKnight