‘Following Sarah’ at Venus Theatre by Amanda Gunther


When faced with the pressures of life at what point does it all become too much to handle? A deeply moving and richly emotional tale of struggle and acceptance during the delicate years of high school crosses the finish line as the Venus Theatre’s first production of their Lucky 13th Season.

The official Washington D.C. area premier (after a brief run during the 2012 Baltimore Playwright Festival) of Rich Espey’s Following Sarah finds itself evolving into a soul-cleansing experience that brings tears to your eyes and frees your heart. Directed by Deborah Randall, this production follows the lives of five high school girls all on the brink of their existence; an emotionally cathartic piece of theatre that delves well into the depths of teenage trauma and brings to light a new type of triumphant hope in the face of even the darkest situations.

Sarah (Kelsey Painter) and Coach (James Jager). Photo by Curtis Jordan.

Sarah (Kelsey Painter) and Coach (James Jager). Photo by Curtis Jordan.

Transforming the tennis-court space at The Venus Playshack into a fully functioning girl’s dormitory with space for cross-country running is no easy task but Set Designer Amy Rhodes executes a brilliant scenic structure. The walls become bright green to reflect the many forest paths that the girls run along and the floor is panting with a breath-taking design to accentuate the very feminine interior of the dorm room, which is delineated by the presence of a bunk bed and desk. Rhodes flawlessly incorporates little touches of dormitory life – the simple decorations on the bed, the funky chair for the desk – to really give Thwaite Academy that home away from home feeling for the girls that make their lives there.

Director Deborah Randall makes several bold choices in this work that truly elevate the overall experience of the play and bring a much deeper meaning to Espey’s work; showcasing the true dynamic nature of his characters as well as the plot. Seamlessly incorporating digital media into various scenes via two video screens that are mounted high on the walls flanking either side of the top bunk bed gives the audience a second layer of experience in this production. The video images are used throughout the production but become particularly poignant when Kenya starts google searching for information about Sarah, each search resulting in a different picture upon the screens. And the use of this mixed media, featuring live tribute videos, enhances the heartfelt sincerity and the impact Sarah’s departure has on the Thwaite community.

Randall makes excellent use of the space having the girls run hard figure-eight patterns through the stage out into the lobby and behind the stage to really craft the notion that they are running long distances during practice and during their race. This combined with her chartreuse color scheme in the girls’ track gear really help them pop against both the scenery of the stage and the script itself. But Randall’s most brilliant move is creating an extra presence upon the stage. Choosing to have the character of Sarah be present transforms this production into something meaningful, transcending just the notion of the story. It becomes haunting; producing a visceral reality for the audience to absorb as she hovers a bit like a lost soul crying out when no one can hear her. An incredibly clever and daring choice that really anchors the weight of this production with great success.

These five women and one man that comprise the cast truly understand how to make theatre with one voice; moving as an ensemble where no one person stands head and shoulders above the rest. Under Randall’s keen direction, the actors emote deep raw feelings and express true passions and fears, finding themselves leaning on one another as much as they depend upon the text in the play.Their grasp of the character depth is astonishing; making for one brilliant if tear-jerking performance.

Playing the everyman, from coach to caterpillar, is James Jager. Adapting varying roles is no simple task but Jager brings a distinct difference to every character with a clear vocal variation. Most of the comic relief in this production falls on Jager’s shoulders, which he carries off with great success. Playing characters such as the roustabout running shoe and the particularly paranoid inchworm larva, Jager gets a chance to bring subtle moments of levity to the otherwise heavy production.

Crafted as a character who is meant to exist only in flashbacks and memory, Sarah (Kelsey Painter) becomes a much more intense persona in this particular production. Painter is ever present, often aloft in the top bunk or sitting right beside her fellow runners, eyes searching, posture leaning as if trying to radiate her sorrow outward. Painter’s presence shifts the play’s focus of surface level characters to something much deeper; an emotional exploration of how her life and departure truly impacted those left in her wake. When Painter’s character is present in scenes of momentary flashback she has a gaping void in her soul that comes pouring out through her listless tone; a somber aura enveloping her entire existence as she stands on the stage, caught in the pressures that perfection demands. Painter’s moments of running on the stage are different from the other girls; while still as intense there is a haunted notion about the way she runs – as if no amount of running will ever help her truly escape – that really hits home to all watching.

Newcomer to the Thwaite Academy is Kenya (Tricia Homer). All attitude with the vocal prowess to prove it, Homer gives a smashing delivery of her more intense moments when she’s losing her cool over whether or not she should be there. With a vocal passion that allows for true expressivity, Homer blends her physical gestures with her speech so that she is constantly in motion, even when standing still. Of everyone that runs on the stage hers is the most enthusiastic, tempered with a balance of enthusiasm and fear, both driving her motivation to move. Homer flashes an additional talent when acting as the voiceover of her mother, giving us a rich accent that adds a little chuckle to the audience’s experience.

Julia (Czarina Joy Flores) starts as the stereotypical ‘emo’ teen but quickly reveals that her emotions stem from deep seeded pain and repressed issues that reflect fully in her vocal tonality and inflection as well as her purposeful pausing and pacing in her dialogue delivery. Flores holds her ground in tense moments with Kenya and creates a versatile character that shifts between tough and tragically vulnerable.

Tough as nails and driven as hard as one is Kat (Ann Fraistat). She literally hits the ground running hard, especially when tunneling through her emotional outbursts. Fraistat is a commanding performer, bringing a unique voice to the character and actualizing the split nature of being second best while still maintaining her humanity and individuality. Absorbing the fact that her character’s world exists solely in the ability to run, Fraistat goes the extra mile when it comes to her physicalized approach to Kat. Throwing her body fully into the scenes where she runs and stretches her larger than life persona exudes a vehemence and ferociousness that takes the stage by storm. But even the character of Kat is not exempt from the pressure and eventually she too slips up and cracks.

The winner of the race in regards to stunning performance is Maddie (Katie Jeffries). While everyone gives a stellar performance in this production, Jeffries takes home the gold medal with her dedication and complete transformation of what could otherwise be a very static character. There is sincere emotional depth behind Jeffries performance of the spastically distraught character of Maddie. She digs deep into the character’s issues, actualizing the full potential that Espey intended for such a character; grounding her in a precariously balanced sane reality that slowly unravels right down to the very last filament. Watching such a thing unfurl is truly astonishing. The physical intensity that she brings to the character along with the ability to fire off her monologues with such a rapid pace and still be perfectly articulate and understood is nothing short of perfection. Jeffries ties the production together with a compassionate emotional outcry to which everyone can relate.

Maddie (Katie Jeffries) and The Inchworm (James Jager). Photo by Curtis Jordan.

Maddie (Katie Jeffries) and The Inchworm (James Jager). Photo by Curtis Jordan.

Following Sarah is a phenomenal experience; the raw and realistic emotions that these five girls pour into this production to create a truly amazing piece of theatre. Race down to Venus before this play crosses its finish line at the end of the month.

Running Time: Approximately Two hours with one intermission.

Following Sarah plays through April 28, 2013 at The Venus Theatre Playshack – 21 C Street, in Laurel, MD. For tickets call (202) 236-4078, or purchase them online.

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