Count Down, one of many extraordinary plays included in this year’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival, is an emotional drama about teenage girls living in a group home in Chester, New Jersey. Playwright Dominique Cieri based it on her experiences teaching in a similar home.
Carmela (Brittany Nicole Timmons), an enthusiastic veteran art teacher assigned to work with girls at the home, hopes to help them develop a play about their lives. The girls are reluctant to participate in the class, and skeptical about Carmela’s intentions. Most of the girls came from troubled homes. Esi (Natalie Dent), is haunted by her mothers’ drug addiction and battle with terminal cancer. Tizzy (Nell Quinn-Gibney) has debilitating shaking spells triggered by memories of being force fed bleach when she was a young child. Amber (Kylie Miller) lives in constant fear of the day her abusive father will be released from prison.
Carmelas’ initial attempts to work with the girls end disastrously. While trying to break up a fight between Blanca (Malissa Cruz Romero) and Neema (Zipporah Brown) Carmela gets punched in the face. In another scene Esi throws a dodge ball at Carmela’s head. Rashida (IO Browne) wants to sing, but she is burdened by a crippling insecurity that makes her hesitant to do so in front of others. Romero’s Blanca can recall every baseball statistic about her crush Derek Jeter and instigates fist fights to distance herself from the group. Miriam (Rose Hahn) is extremely intelligent; she resents having Tourette’s Syndrome, and prefers reading over participating in group activities.
Carmela toggles between her passion to teach and mounting frustration that her plans are not coming to fruition. Carmela encourages the girls to write their fears and dreams down in a personal journal.
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The lead social worker, Hobbs (George Oliver Buntin) confronts Carmela with concerns that the writing activity may be harmful to the girls’ ability to heal from the traumas they endured. Carmela ignores this warning and pushes the girls to explore their emotions through the arts. As Carmela persists, the girls gradually warm to her and find solace in sharing their stories with one another.
Count Down, is a truly moving drama that showcases strong acting from a young ensemble which allows us to empathize with their characters’ struggles to overcome personal challenges.
Count Down by Dominique Cieri. Directed by Bari Hochwald. Cast: Zipporah Brown, IO Browne, George Oliver Buntin, Malissa Cruz Romero, Natalie Dent, Rose Hahn, Kylie Miller, Nell Quinn-Gibney, Brittany Nicole Timmons. Stage Managers, Molly Prunty/Aris Hines. Lighting Design, Lana Riggins. Sound Design, Max Bent. Master Carpenter, Peter Johnson. Scenic Painter, Haley Horton. Costume Design, Hannah Viau. Graphic Design, Sherrionne Brown. Marketing/PR, Elena Kostakis. Fight Choreography, Brad Norris. Photography, Shealyn Jae. Masks Facilitator, Tara Cariaso. Produced by Strand Theater Company . Reviewed by Angela N. Carroll.