‘Speech & Debate’ at Montgomery College’s Communication and Performing Arts Department by Leslie Weisman

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FIVE STARS 82x15
Montgomery College Communications and Performing Arts Department’s production of Stephen Karam’s Speech & Debate, which closed on Sunday is whip-smart, sophisticated, and incisive. First, there’s Chris Campanella’s highly imaginative and illustrative lighting design, David Crandall’s creative and skillful employment of projections and sound, and Sean Urbantke’s evocative set design.

Kelsey Jenkins ( Diwata).  Photo by Perry T. Schwartz.
Kelsey Jenkins ( Diwata). Photo by Perry T. Schwartz.

Then, there’s the Equity-level acting chops exhibited by the four young people who brought their characters vividly to life. Last, but by no means least, is veteran director Sasha Olinick’s mastery of the play’s wide-ranging, stylistically diverse elements, combining and aligning them into a cohesive whole. This is a show that clearly showed the extraordinary care, commitment and craft that went into it.  And all—or so it seemed—without breaking a sweat.

We are at North Salem High School, Salem, Oregon. Drawn together by the random connections of an online chat room, three kids who have always felt themselves on the outside looking in suddenly find themselves inside, but in a way that threatens to leave them more outside than ever. Howie (Deavon Taylor), an openly gay senior, discovers that BIGUY, who wants to meet him, may be a teacher at the school. Solomon (Ren Paige), an aspiring muckraker—er, journalist—happens upon Howie’s blog, and, sensing a scandal, tries to suss him out. Diwata (Kelsey Jenkins), a dedicated diarist and aspiring actress, is caught in the middle.

We enter the Cultural Arts Center’s comfortable and contemporary Theater 2 to a babble of voices so familiar we’d know we were in a high school classroom even before our eyes light on the stage, a slightly elevated platform outfitted with two ash-wood student desks and their green-plastic and metal chairs, teacher’s desk and office chair. A large blackboard hangs on the wall at stage left; a similarly sized video screen at stage center displays in a loop announcements and promos for upcoming events (pep rally, play tryouts, Spanish club, Black History Month) interspersed with more “serious” information: Teen Birth Rate bar graph, maps of Oklahoma and the U.S., and—curiously and somewhat incongruously—a grade sheet.

Morning announcements come over the P.A. system, among them a teacher’s plea “for someone to be” in North Salem’s new Speech & Debate Club. (To those of you for whom high school is, as for yours truly, a decades-distant memory, retro alert: even the static sounds the same. Which may be why, when the principal took over from the student to lead the Pledge of Allegiance and announced in a take-no-prisoners tone, “Yes, you. Stand up!” three-quarters of the multi-generational audience, looking around uncertainly for cues, slowly rose.)

Solomon is haranguing his teacher (Albertha Joseph) to let him write an article about abortion for the school paper. Told that it’s the only subject he can’t write about, Solomon promptly proposes another: homophobic Republican politicians involved in sex scandals with underage young men. Told that he could probably find plenty of Democratic politicians in the same boat, Solomon replies that it’s the hypocrisy that riles him. For every attempt by the teacher to parry, Solomon counters with a telling thrust till the exchange deteriorates into almost a rapid-patter vaudeville routine, his “I’ll google it” inserted between her every other word. In the end, she suggests that he put his interest in public affairs to positive use and join the Speech & Debate club. Solomon is sympathetically nerdy, with black uncombed curly hair and black-rimmed glasses, his white sneakers the crowning touch; Paige plays him with an earnestness that alternates between relentless and entreatingly hopeful.

Ren Paige (Soloman) and Deavon Taylor (Howie). Photo by Perry T. Schwartz.
Ren Paige (Solomon) and Deavon Taylor (Howie). Photo by Perry T. Schwartz.

Stage dark; the divide between the audience and the stage now becomes the set. Diwata is blogging her diary accompanied by riffs from her Casio keyboard and mocking it as an instrument, her derivative use of it, and her regrettable need for it. Mr. Healy has informed them, she raps, that in this conservative town, the heroine of the upcoming production of the popular musical Once Upon a Mattress will not be an unwed mother, “but will just really, really want to get married.”

Jenkins, her every glance pregnant with significance, is a real dynamo, reeling off Diwata’s rapid-fire patter with such utter conviction, we suspect (although we know better) the actress must have written it herself. She also shines in the scene where Diwata, insisting on playing the lead in the school show, does a flamboyant reading from The Crucible, throwing herself—literally—into the parts of Mary Warren and her accuser, going from one to the other with startling rapidity and facility.  And Taylor, who heretofore played it straight (in a manner of speaking), knocks our socks off when a reporter from The Oregonian (Albertha Joseph) enters to watch the play rehearsal, which suddenly explodes in a psychedelic, Lady Gaga-esque homage to Abraham Lincoln in drag (Taylor).

Speech & Debate succeeds on several levels, both as a play and in this superb production. For those of you who missed it: it was in the area (at Rep Stage) in 2011, and may yet return. As we did, to our high school days—which in some ways, never left us.

Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.

Speech & Debate ended its run on Sunday, November 24, 2013 at The Cultural Arts Center at Montgomery College – Takoma / Silver Spring campus – 7995 Georgia Avenue, in Silver Spring, MD. Check their calendar of upcoming events.