Four young girls must deal with the mysterious death of a classmate
Published: August 8, 2012
Written by Rich Espey, Directed by Anne Shoemaker
At Fells Point Corner Theatre through Aug. 26
There’s this really wonderful thing that happens with certain pieces of art. Should you zoom in, ever enlarging the little details, it just keeps expanding until you get right down to the atoms of it. And yet, despite the inundation of different components, it all fits seamlessly together, forming one complete and fully functioning whole. In Following Sarah, you can see such a miracle in action as moth larvae speak their mind, running shoes impart wisdom, and the dead rise up to deliver one last cryptic message.
Written by Rich Espey, the play follows four young women coping with the death of a classmate in a high-class New England boarding school. There’s Kat (Sarah Ford Gorman), the pushy and driven captain of the cross-country team, who speaks with a sweet Southern lilt but seethes with a deep, buried resentment that even she can’t name. Maddy (Emily Sucher) buzzes with nervous energy, always anxiously brushing her fingers across her lips. Her father prescribed to her some medication to help her excel in her studies, and she pops the pills incessantly, claiming they help her focus on her final thesis. Julia (Grace Yeon) struggles with her identity and her sexuality, both longing for acceptance and keeping everyone at arm’s length. Kenya (Rachel Reckling) just arrived for her first year at the school, dismayed at being one of the few African-American students and at having moved so far from her family and friends.
They’re all coping in their own ways with the death of Sarah Gardner (Katelin McMullin), the cross-country star who led the school to glory at the state championships the year before. Immediately after her win, though, she mysteriously fell to her death, leaving behind regrets and unanswered questions. On the first day of the fall semester following her death, she mysteriously sends a message to her former teammates, but they don’t open it for fear of what it will say. Though still on everyone’s mind, Sarah’s memory lurks below the surface, coloring even the most innocuous of statements. Espey’s dialogue bubbles with wit and the proper levels of angst one would expect from a couple of dorm rooms full of teenage girls who are all struggling to make the most of life while just trying to find their proper place in it.
The play packs that one-two punch of laugh-out-loud moments and heartbreaking revelations, sometimes veering toward the surreal without losing touch with the story. Characters materialize out of thin air, interacting with the girls before fading into the ether, while projections factor into the plot without bogging down the live energy of the action onstage. Although the production is a directorial debut for Anne Shoemaker, she masterfully balances strong visuals with dynamic performances from her actors, leaving audiences laughing one moment, misty-eyed the next.
While each of the actors fully embrace their roles, playing them with precision, Emily Sucher still manages to shine among a rather well-chosen cast. Her take on Maddy twitches, shrieks, and spazzes her way through the story, consistently getting laughs from the crowd without pushing the character into the realm of caricature. Oscillating between a helpless whisper and a scream, she freaks in just the way a sleep-deprived, over-drugged, and overachieving student would, whizzing about with the sort of energy that’s forever on the brink of collapse.
With a single set for the entire play, the production uses lighting and descriptive dialogue to transport its characters to different locations. Whether we’re planted in the cast’s memories, following Sarah sprinting through the woods, or we’re under the overpass where she met her end, the play fluidly moves from one place to another. As the action unfolds, it’s crucial that the audience remains with the girls the entire time; sources of guilt and regret are exposed, along with the subtle ways their emotional ties to one another hold strong. Thankfully, the play keeps everything in sharp focus, rushing toward the climax with the drive of an athlete.
Placed toward the end of the Baltimore Playwright Festival’s season of performances, Following Sarah should give you a reason to pay attention if you haven’t done so already. As a hub of local theater talent, the festival cross-pollinates among different artists from across the city, creating new creatures that are all their own. The story of Sarah and the people she left behind is no different, stepping into the spotlight fully formed, highly intricate, and fascinating to watch.
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