Remember "Breaking Away," a 1979 film about a bunch of high school buddies who decide to compete in a team cycling race as they deal with the challenges of becoming adults, i.e. jobs, relationships, parental expectations, broken dreams and wistful aspirations?
Rich Espey's entry in the 31st annual Baltimore Playwrights Festival, "Following Sarah," is somewhat reminiscent of this bittersweet film, only instead of high school boys, its boarding school girls, substitute cross country running for bicycling, and instead of the protagonist overcoming his disappointments to go to college, the lead in Espey's work commits suicide.
"Following Sarah" may be considered part of a series of plays by Espey, specifically "Fifty-Fifty" (2003) and "Hope's Arbor" (2006), that make reference to Thwaite Academy, described as "a prestigious New England boarding school." In this approximately two hour, 2-act production, Thwaite students Sarah Gardner (Katelin McMullin), Kat Winner (Sarah Ford Gorman), Judi Goldblatt (Grace Yeon), Maddy White (Emily Sucher) and Kenya Hopewell (Rachel Reckling) form a state championship-winning cross country team, and Espey does a fine job in developing characters who are believable and engaging without ever becoming stereotypes.
Director Anne Shoemaker does a superb job in transforming the stage of the Fells Point Corner Theater into everything from two dorm rooms to a track meet to a country road by the bridge where Sarah jumped to her death…but not before she arranged for her teammates to receive a special email-that email sparks the conflict within the story, its contents not revealed til the play's end.
This strong ensemble cast delivers powerful performances. McMullin's Sarah, to whom we are introduced via a series of flashbacks, suffers the price of early success and the huge expectations that come along with it. If one must always win, when will there be time to simply enjoy life? When does one have permission to be human, i.e. to fail?
Sarah Ford Gorman's Kat, ironically surnamed "winner" as she is always second to Sarah, finds herself unwittingly part of the crowd that pushes Sarah to excel. Kat needs Sarah's victories to advance herself. In one particularly wrenching scene, Kat's cheers devolve into screamed demands that help send Sarah sprinting toward oblivion.
Grace Yeon provides a somewhat comical turn as Julia Goldblatt, an Asian girl adopted by a Jewish, potentially lesbian, mother; Sucher's Maddy is a study in prescription-drug-fueled biopolar mania as she struggles to earn top grades and her father's approval. Reckling's Kenya is a newcomer to Thwaite, exuding streetwise bravado, but is actually just as fragile as her fellow students, trying to live up to expectations, in this case, her mother's.
Adding spice to the mix is Mike Zemarel who plays several brief but memorable roles, ranging from comic to tragic, from Julia's imaginary Asian birth-father to a moth larvae to the cross country coach to Sarah's father.
Beyond "Breaking Away," there are also moments in this often more-bitter-than-sweet play that are reminiscent of the film, "American Beauty," and a troubled youth's desire to duck out of the cacophony of non-stop, rat-race life and to bask in the wonder of something as simple as bit of paper floating on air…or in "Following Sarah"'s case, an inch worm hanging from a nearly invisible strand, dangling free from the predators that would devour it. Yes, there's much that is metaphorical in "Following Sarah," much that is riveting, revealing, and entertaining.
"Following Sarah" continues its run at the Fells Point Corner Theater, 251 South Anne Street, through Aug. 26th. For more information, visit www.fpct.org.