By Jack Firneno
There’s a fictional New England town where love really hurts.
At least, that’s how it seemed when six Neshaminy High School students performed at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope last week.
The play, Almost, Maine by John Cariani, is a string of occasionally surreal vignettes involving different romantic couples in the town. On stage, characters were hit with ironing boards, fell literally in love with each other, and carried around what they insisted were their actual broken hearts.
“I know this sounds weird, but before I go onstage I kind of hit myself to get a feeling of hurt,” admitted Allie Wiatrowski, miming a light punch to her arm to illustrate.
It may seem extreme, but it got the job done. The group’s performance received glowing responses from the audience and expert panel at the 47th Annual Student Theater Fest.
Presented by the Newtown Arts Company and the Bucks County Playhouse, the seven-day festival gave more than 700 students from 30 schools a chance to perform in front of their peers and industry professionals.
The six Neshaminy students were members of the Roadies, a select group from the school’s larger drama club. For Wiatrowski, along with fellow junior Sean Devonshire, sophomore Forrest Filiano and seniors Colin O’Neill, Harris Rothfield and Emily Tolnay, the festival presented them with a new audience.
“It’s different when your friends and family see you, as opposed to strangers or your competition,” said Wiatrowski.
“It’s a compliment to know they’re listening,” added Tolnay.
That audience relationship was especially important for a production like this. The stage was bare save for a few props and the actors, giving little clue as to the setting or the characters. The room was silent as the first scene opened with O’Neill sitting on a bench. Wiatrowski passed behind him carrying an ironing board and accidentally hit him with it, prompting a well-executed pratfall.
The audience erupted in laughter.
“When you’re backstage, you’re nervous, but when you get that first laugh, you think, ‘OK, I’ve got this,’ ” explained Wiatrowski.
Devonshire got a similar response when he collapsed suddenly on the floor in another scene, explaining that he literally fell in love. The laughter built when the object of his desire did the same.
And, the audience responded with belly laughs and nervous silence during Rothfield and Tolnay’s scene, as the latter’s backstory unfolded in fits of comedy and purposely awkward exposition.
“When they laugh, you get more and more energy. It just builds, and it’s greater than what you can get from just practicing,” explained Rothfield.
But, the Roadies have had plenty of practice, too. They’ve been performing this play since November, and have taken to improvising, changing lines and even reciting parts of the script when passing each other in the hallway at school.
“The director gives us a lot of freedom. We’d ask, ‘Can we say this? I’d say this in real life,’ ” said Tolnay.
The director, Gina Chiolan, is also the founder of the Roadies. A teacher at Neshaminy, she hand-selects a group of 20 or so students each year from the 100-strong drama club.
Students at Neshaminy can take drama as an accredited class, and the Roadies counts as another class, too. Then there are extracurriculars like select choir, which attract many drama club members.
“There’s a little section of the high school that’s all artsy things, and that’s pretty much where we live,” said Wiatrowski.
Still, it’s good to leave home sometimes. These Roadies will be off to college soon, and almost all will pursue theater professionally. And, judging by the the comments from the adjudicators at the Playhouse, they have a bright future ahead of them.
Following the performance, the group received feedback from Broadway and national Broadway touring vet Robin Lewis and retired Harry S. Truman theatre teacher Lou Volpe. Here, the pain the students portrayed on stage gave way to the pleasure of a job well done.
The panel complimented the group for subtly shifting the tones and moods in their scenes, and displaying “lovely honesty” throughout the performances.
Wiatrowski and O’Neill received special note for their chemistry, with Lewis noting especially how well the young thespians communicated in moments that had no dialogue.
“When two actors are that committed to a scene,” he said, “you don’t need to say anything.”