Thursday, March 6, 2003

A parent’s green thumb: Bearing witness to the challenges of growing

Published in the Portland Phoenix

It’s really just a baseball hat. A blue Boston Red Sox hat, always perched on Justin Rasch’s head, especially when he’s not acting. But this hat, belonging to a sturdy eighth-grader from Rochester, New Hampshire, now has a place in the script of a locally written play: To Bear Witness, by David J. Mauriello.

The hat could have started there; it’s quite common for teens to wear hats these days. But it’s just riding coattails to the top. Rasch is taking acting classes at Arts Rochester. When Mauriello and Chuck Galle were looking for someone to play a 14-year-old, that’s where they looked.

" Half the kids in the class tried out for it, " Rasch said. " The kid knocked me out, " Galle said. Even with such high praise coming from his director, his hat stayed the same size. " Sometimes I think I’m more excited about it than he is, " said his mother.

Her son really wants to star on Saturday Night Live, but you can see him before he makes it there, by spending an evening at the Players Ring in Portsmouth. Both Rasch and his drama teacher at home, Kate Kirkwood, play key supporting roles in Mauriello’s sixth play at the Ring.

It started as a screenplay in the late 1980s, after Mauriello read an article about teen suicide and decided to explore the issue in script form. Now a play, the show has 16 scenes, a throwback to its film roots. The suicide scene is gone, and the audience never meets Danny, the boy who has killed himself months before the play begins.

The hat has appeared, now an important device in the show, used to signal father/son communication and camaraderie. Words have been changed, whole lines revamped. Mauriello admits he has a melodramatic tendency with dialogue, and while it remains throughout, it has been tempered by the cast, who made many suggestions. " I’m rewriting as I’m watching rehearsals, " Mauriello said before the play’s run began.

The actors tried out a lot of different angles in practice, to see how they worked or if they failed. " We don’t talk about having an affair. We’re all over each other on stage, " said Kirkwood (playing Diane Putnam) of her interaction with Frank DeMarco (played by Al Vautour).

The play is about nurturing roots and connections, between friends, neighbors, family. It contrasts 1980s ideals of success — money, power, domination — with those beginning to take hold in the 21st century — love, trust, respect. The characters are all very human, with honest differences separating them and deeply personal needs pulling them together.

Frank’s bizarre physical intimacy with nearly every character in the play springs from his need to connect with people. As a landscaper, he knows how to nurture plants, healing them and bringing them to their full, blossoming potential. With human beings, however, he is stuck.

As a father, husband, boss, and aspiring politician, he both resents and is mystified by others’ successes. His weakness is his son, from whom he desperately wants love, but who sees through the bullshit to Frank’s cheating heart.

The play walks the line between preaching and showing, and raises powerful questions about parenting. As Helen (played by Denise McDonough) notes, parents have a monopoly on their children, but only as long as there is truth and honesty between them. When those are lost, so are the kids.

A strong, old tree and a brand-new sapling are the metaphors for what Frank wants in his life and what he has. At a crossroads, he must choose to let the sapling die or revise his priorities to keep the tree alive. " He’s thrown everything in, " Kirkwood said of Mauriello’s writing, which includes a brief scene of heady philosophy as well as more botany than most stage productions.

Parents who are trying to keep strong connections as their kids grow up should see this show, which will cause them to step back and re-examine the priorities and assumptions behind however they choose to raise their offspring.

The cast, and their characters, are laid out as plants, needing love, honesty, and attention to flourish: The weed is expelled from the flower bed and the myriad not-quite-misfit plants that had been on the edge of the garden are brought together in a quiet, simple, and pleasing conclusion.

" I hope, " said Mauriello, " the audience is going to feel all of my characters have grown."

To Bear Witness
Written by David J. Mauriello. Directed by Chuck Galle. With Justin Rasch, Al Vautour, Denise McDonough, Paul J. Bell and Kate Kirkwood. At the Players Ring, Portsmouth, through March 9. Call (603) 436-8123.


• Word is the soldiers over at the St. Lawrence, busy putting on Pvt. Wars, are getting lonely. It’s a fabulous show, and they’re there through March 9. Support the troops!

• Portsmouth screenwriter Nancy Grossman is a playwright on the verge of seeing the fruits of her first stage play, Therapist on the Verge. She’ll get her chance when it is read aloud at the Rice Public Library in Kittery, at 7 p.m., March 11.

• The Theater Project’s Al Miller corralled a group of fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders into performing a bilingual acting/singing show, Rose in Red, using traditional French folksongs. It created a lot of interest and plans to do a full bilingual show are in the works.

• Maybe Miller was warming up for the upcoming revision of his musical Matching Shadows with Homer, put on last year and set to reopen March 14, with some new writing, music, and a few new faces on stage as well.

• Camden playwright Robert Manns has several plays being produced in the next couple of months in the Belfast area. Get out the binocs: Wildlife and the environment are characters in some of his work.