BPF Review: ‘Following Sarah’

Emily Sucher, Rachel Reckling, Katelin McMullin, Sarah Ford Gorman, and Grace Yeon in ‘Following Sarah.’ Photo by Ken Stanek.

Following Sarah, now playing at the Fells Point Corner Theatre, is an eloquent and moving reflection on the tragedy of high-achieving adolescents. The play by Rich Espey follows four girls on a cross-country team at Thwaite Academy, a New England boarding school, as they try to follow in the shadow of their late state champion Sarah Gardner (Katelin McMullin). The confusion of Gardner’s untimely death is renewed the following school year by a mysterious e-mail sent from Sarah’s school account, despite the fact that, as new captain Kat (Sarah Ford Gorman) rightly notes: “Dead people cannot send e-mails.”

Espey has written something that is painfully evocative of everyone’s adolescence, and the wonderful cast and director Anne Shoemaker have delivered an excellent adaptation.

This play is a marvel of small detail reflecting the teenage experience. The two separate dormitory bedrooms that make up the stage perfectly capture the sheer squalor of dorm life, the near-bare walls, the cheap wooden furniture (including a bunk bed), the corkboard covered with scholastic achievement. Julia (Grace Yeon) begins her stay in her new room by unloading two massive Twilight books onto her desk, while neurotic Maddy (Emily Sucher) has taped pink foot cutouts to the wall above hers. New studentKenya(Rachel Reckling), sleeping on a dead girl’s old bed, demonstrates her independence and unusual background with a huge Eminem poster.

Mike Zemarel and Rachel Reckling. Photo by Ken Stanek.

This is a very well-orchestrated play. Sucher’s performance as the pill-popping, perpetually terrified Maddy is utterly committed—there’s never a moment of pause from her desperation; she is so consistently at the end of her tether that her frenetic behavior is almost uncomfortable to watch. Yeon’s turn as the Chinese-Jewish lesbian is at turns funny and poignant, but her bubbly effervescence is a bright light in what is quite often a very dark story. Reckling as newcomer Kenya has a knack for delivery, while Gorman’s role as Sarah’s successor is the absolute emblem of a high achiever, with all the terrifying force of personality that includes. And McMullin, whose appearances are almost ephemeral, is downright heartbreaking as a girl frozen in the prime of her life.

There is one more star of this show: Mike Zemarel, who plays every single male character in the entire play. I was skeptical, when I saw the program, of how this would work, but Zemarel is so versatile as to make it irrelevant. He’s equally as good playing Sarah’s mourning father as he is playing an overweight moth larvae dangling from a silk thread to evade a predator.

Admittedly, some of the more postmodern elements of the play are reminiscent of a Tom Robbins novel (a talking shoe, for instance), but at its heart it is the unflinching look at what it feels like to think that each little thing means everything, and each little failure means the end of everything. Espey has written something that is painfully evocative of everyone’s adolescence, and the wonderful cast and director Anne Shoemaker have delivered an excellent adaptation.

Running Time: approx. 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission.

Following Sarah, as part of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival is playing at the Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St, Baltimore, MD through August 26, 2012. For tickets visit online.