Every race has three parts: the first part you run with your head, where you do all the thinking, letting your mind take over. The second part you run with your legs; it’s all physical you don’t concentrate, you don’t feel you just run. And the third part; where your legs are burning and your lungs are burning that part you run with your heart. This mantra becomes the structural breakdown for the Baltimore Playwrights Festival entry Following Sarah hosted at the Fells Point Corner Theatre. Written by Rich Espey and Directed by Anne Shoemaker this play is filled with passion, emotion, triumphs and losses; it is a race of the soul as four young girls contend with the physical, emotional, and mental challenges life presents them in their final year of high school.
The show focuses around four high school seniors attending Thwait Academy, a prestigious preparatory school for young girls. They aren’t just any girls but girls who are united by the team sport they share: Cross-Country Running. One of the girls is a newcomer to the scene while the other three are dealing with a traumatic experience in regards to last year’s teammate, Sarah. A tragic accident tainted their winning of the state championships and now they all must work together to overcome the trials and tribulations of their final running season. It’s a true coming-of- age story that is nothing short of inspiring.
Espey’s work is poetic; each of the girl’s creates a strong personality on stage, coming together to form a very solid notion of what life and the pressures of prep school are like. His scenes are nothing short of creative genius, often delving into the subconscious emotions of the characters through imaginative instances; conversations shared with ghostly apparitions or anthropomorphism of a single running shoe. His work is detailed and captivating, drawing the audience into the stories of these girls’ lives.
Director Anne Shoemaker does an incredible job of compartmentalizing everything that is happening on the stage. She works with six very talented actors to bring Espey’s vision to life on a single set that starts of simply divided into the two halves of the girls’ dormitories. Shoemaker maintains a perfect balance between action happening on one side of the stage and silent moments on the other, allowing the audience a unique view of their lives. It’s literally like watching a cross-section of the action, having one side in full motion with audible dialogue and interactions while the other side silently but subtly goes about their life.
Shoemaker inspires her actors to present fully developed characters throughout the production; ensuring that everyone has perfect delivery of their lines despite heavy accents and character quirks. Her approach to executing Espey’s notions is moving and heart-warming, a true directorial triumph.
Each of the girls has a unique aspect to bring to the show, and before you know it you’re deeply engrossed in their drama, clinging to each word, anxious and eager to discover what happens next. The four main players create the stereotypical friendship of high school seniors, clingy and catty with all the ups and downs of a killer roller coaster.
Sarah (Katelin McMullin) has the unique role in this play as all of her appearances are either ghostly or presented in flashback. McMullin is soft spoken and this endears the character with a notion of sorrow. She portrays most of her characters emotions through silent expressions given in moments when other characters are speaking.
Kenya (Rachel Reckling) is presented with the deep burns of anger from her past. Reckling carries her physical tension in her body and every step is presented with an attitude. She exudes a heavily rooted angst in her character’s speeches and tries to conceal the stronger emotions that fester just beneath the surface of the cold newcomer exterior.
Julia (Grace Yeon) has a bitchy side that enables her constant complaining to be comical. Yeon creates the perfect dichotomy between frustration and uncertainty; doubting everything about herself and her place in life while questioning everyone else in the process. We see the most evolution from her character as she begins to soften after dawning realizations grace her presence. Yeon shares a comically intense moment with Male Birth Parent (Mike Zemarel) which is perfectly balanced between his smart quips and his sagely advice, allowing us to see a different side of her frustrated character.
Maddy (Emily Sucher) is a spastic little bundle of nerves. Hyped up on special pills to help her focus, Sucher’s character often speaks a mile a minute, and freaks out over everything. Despite her rapid paced lines and verbally explosive moments you never lose what she is saying thanks to her perfect articulation and enunciation. Sucher shows all the physical symptoms of a caffeine junky at the end of her filament and her moments of critical crisis are both tragic and comic at the same time.
Kat (Sarah Ford Gorman) is the ring-leader of the girls. Gorman’s character is born with a chip on her shoulder, constantly strutting about with something to prove. We see a cold hard shift from Gorman after a late freak out over an injury, moving the callous and somewhat obnoxious over achiever to a softer kinder and more understanding person. Gorman has the most difficult challenge of the show, staying constantly upbeat, a positive driving force when the others falter, doing so through tough love and harsh words. Her southern Texas accent is flawless and adds a level of grit to the character that really deepens the performance.
The girls share an intense scene when all five are standing on stage reenacting the race. The running they do is extremely intense. Although they are only moving in place on the stage, as the scene progresses their breathing becomes erratic, their bodies show the signs of fatigue, the sounds of exhaustion echoes in their voices and they truly convince you that they’ve moved the three miles of the race.
And the jack of trades in this production is Mike Zemarel. Getting to play such roles as Moth Larvae and High Performance Running Shoe, Zemarel provides a myriad of fun and quirky characters to balance out all of the drama. His most entertaining moment on stage is also his most profound. Appearing as a Moth Larvae, Zemarel treats the audience to one of his many accents, this one being a prophetic British man, not unlike the caterpillar you would expect to encounter in any retelling of Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland. Zemarel lends his talents to six different characters and is a show-stopper in each role.
This is by far the best offering presented at this year’s Baltimore Playwrights Festival and is an extremely moving piece of work.
Running Time: Approximately Two hours with one intermission.
Following Sarah plays through August 26, 2012 as a part of The Baltimore Playwrights Festival at Fells Point Corner Theatre – 251 South Ann Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 276-7837, or purchase them online.