The pain of growing up different is revealed through deep secrets and fears in Stephen Karam’s winsome “Speech and Debate,” currently on stage in the intimate confines of the Upstairs at the Henegar venue.
Directed by Michael Thompson, the story is played out on a spare black stage. Oversized alphabet blocks get moved to spell out messages like “secrets,” “choice” and “be free.” Upstage, a large video screen proclaims certain scenes about to unfold or serves as a large computer screen so the audience can see the online chats as they happen.
The drama centers on the often funny, often terse and always insightful relationship three high school social outcasts: Solomon, a reporter for the school newspaper, who takes himself so seriously that he becomes insufferably self-righteous in his quest to dig up sex scandals on politicians and school teachers; Howie, a confident but brooding teen who came out of the closet before he hit puberty and who likes to hit the online gay chat rooms; and Diwata, a flighty wannabe actress who uses podcasts to launch diatribes against her drama teacher and find somehow to become a star.
The trio come together via the internet and begin plotting their revenge on the uptight, puritanical society in Salem, Oregon. Yes, Diwata uses “The Crucible” to draw analogies between their uptight home town and the opinionated witch burners in Salem, Mass. The idea is for Diwata to orally interpret in a public meeting some of Solomon’s inflammatory writing about Howie and one of the teachers.
Kelsie Curry brings her typical high energy and physically expressive acting style to her portrayal of Diwata. But now and then, you see her drop the externals and that’s when the truthful inner life of Diwata begins to show. We see this young woman as a very mixed up, very sad girl bereft of friends.
Jarrett Poore draws a very clear picture of Solomon. In an effort to fit in, the young man keeps fighting his true self. His bravado quickly turns to intense self-loathing and where he was once arrogant, he is now compelling.
Dylan Pomichter shows a very grown up 18 year old Howie. Brooding and melancholy, he rather pines for a simple life of a teenager complete with simple issues. But being gay checkmates that desire.
Too often, the staging is a bit tennis court style, with audience having to look from one side of stage to the next in order to follow the dialogue. Thompson would be well served to discover more classic triangular composition in his staging, which makes it easier for an audience to absorb visually.
What a good choice it was to produce “Speech and Debate” in the Upstairs at the Henegar theater. The shortened aesthetic distance really pulls the audience and actors together and creates that delicious theatrical communion so often lacking in larger venues.
Word of warning: There are adult themes, adult language. May want to leave little ones at home.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Speech and Debate” runs through Oct. 7 at the Upstairs at the Henegar studio theater in the Henegar Center for the Arts, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne. The show performs 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. . Call 321-723-8698 or visit www.henegar.org.