Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Speech & Debate"

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note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Larry Stark

"Speech & Debate"

by Stephen Karam
Directed by Jeremy Johnson

Choreography by Ilyse Robbins
Scenic Design by Skip Curtiss
Lighting Design by Margo Caddell
Sound Design by Steven McIntosh
Costume Design by Mallory Frers
Assistant Stage Manager Dawn Schall
Production Stage Manager Amanda Ostrow

Howie.................Chris Conner
Solomon..................Alex Wyse
Diwata.................Rachel Hunt
Teacher/Reporter...Maureen Keiller

American high schools are really not equipped to handle gifted kids, so they often end up spinning their frustrated wheels as loners in their own fantasylands. Take the opening scene in Stephen Karam's play, where teacher Maureen Keiller tries to dampen the fervor of a student (Alex Wyse) who wants to be Seymour Hersh and write an article discussing all the homophobic Republicans who come on to teen-agers in internet chat-rooms --- for the school newspaper. He thinks the school's drama-coach is a closet gay and tries, as "an investigative reporter" with a tape-machine, to prove it. His search leads him to two other students who may have information --- but, of course, they each want something.

Howie (Chris Connor) needs at least two other students to form a gay-straight discussion group. (Howie, trying to get through his senior year, says he came out when he was nine; well, ten actually...) Diwata (Rachel Hunt) needs fellow students involved in Forensic League competitions in oratory, dramatic interpretation, and "Speech & Debate".

Isolated, each of these kids seeks release on the Internet. ("What, you Read My Blog?" Diwata reacts: "But that's my Secret Personal Diary!") A large screen at the back of Skip Curtiss' set flashes chat-room dialogues and announces each scene with a category of Forensic competition. Diwata in particular has it in for the Drama Coach because she's consistently passed over for star-roles in school musicals. The improvised caterwauling for her blog displays both her talent and her untutored imitation of televised amateurs.

As the kids get to know one another, it becomes obvious that Howie the investigator has a tightly-held (though obvious) secret -- and Diwata has one as well. But the three of them are honest enough to participate in starting their new --- though poorly attended --- extra-curricular groups. And, eventually, Maureen Keiller re-appears as a radio-reporter interested in these students' plea for the freedom to discuss Real Life Subjects in meetings and in the student newspaper. Her coverage isn't exactly unbiased, but hey, any publicity in a storm, right?

This both is and isn't an Anti-Gay-Bashing tract. Sexuality isn't what makes these kids loners; in a sense, it's their enthusiasms, their Gifts. They manage, despite their differences, to become a group of friends, who can overlook those differences and enjoy one another's enthusiasms.

Oh, and the expression of their search for honesty turns out to be a dance-sequence choreographed by Illyse Robbins that is Dynamite and must be seen to be appreciated!

Anything else? Well yes. I must confess that in the last two years of my own high-school career it was Forensic League competitions in speech and debate, and the South River High School Dramatic Club (plus Mrs. Appleby's English classes) that, literally, made me what I am today. Honestly, though his trio of overachieving misfits may look weird, Stephen Karam's play is a genuine slice of high school Realism! Take it from one who knows....

"Speech & Debate" (27 March - 25 April)
140 Clarendon Street, BOSTON
1(617) 585-5678

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide