From left are "Following Sarah" cast members Emily… (Submitted photo by Ken Stanek )
Considering that the title character is no longer among the living in "Following Sarah," she spends a good deal of time on stage at Fells Point Corner Theatre.
Playwright Rich Espey has set himself a tricky challenge with this Baltimore Playwrights Festival entry about a deceased high school girl who lingers in the thoughts of her classmates and perhaps lingers in a supernatural way, too.
Espey, who is a veteran presence in this annual showcase for local playwrights, has a firm command of character and dialogue. Arguably more problematic are this play's fantasy components, which include the high school girls talking with imaginary characters and also having to decide whether they should respond to what appears to be a posthumous email sent by Sarah.
The fantasy scenes are so philosophically blunt that they often seem in jarring contrast to the realistic scenes involving Sarah's friends, who are all members of the cross country team. Sometimes the realistic and fantastic components of this play thematically blend in a satisfying manner, but sometimes the transitions between them seem forced.
It's a credit to Espey's writing skill that any doubts one might have about the quasi-"Twilight Zone" metaphysical qualities of his play are more or less pushed aside by the extent to which we are pulled into this tale of teen angst.
Sarah Gardner (Katelin McMullin) was a champion on the cross country team at her boarding school in New England. The audience is informed early in the play that this junior died immediately after winning a race near the end of the spring semester, and that her death presumably was a suicide. Sarah appears in the play via fantasized flashbacks in which she's practicing with her teammates.
Returning for the fall semester are teammates Kat Winner (Sarah Ford Gorman), Julia Goldblatt (Grace Yeon) and Maddy White (Emily Sucher). They're now seniors who certainly know what it's like at an elite school that seems like an academic and athletic pressure cooker. Not sure what to expect is a transfer student, Kenya Hopewell (Rachel Reckling), who says she also feels set apart by being the only black student in a mostly white school setting.
The playwright has borderline-caricatured scripting in the phone calls between Kenya and her unheard-by-the-audience working-class mother; likewise, Julia's status as a Chinese orphan adopted by a Jewish family is not exactly handled with a light scripted touch. What saves the day here is that the characters themselves realize the extent to which they're socially perceived in terms of their ethnicity; and the playwright's obvious empathy for their troubled young lives also helps.
One of the most appealing aspects of this production directed by Anne Shoemaker is that the young adult actors playing these high school girls seem convincing in their roles. They make us aware of how smart, sensitive and, yes, occasionally cruel these students can be.
The only male actor in the cast, Mike Zemarel, capably portrays an assortment of male characters including a cross-country coach, Julia's long-absent biological father, Sarah's grieving father, a "High Performance Shoe" and a "Moth Larva." Any actor who can play both a shoe and a moth larva deserves some kind of recognition.
That odd array of male characters is yet another indication of how this intellectually ambitious play is determined to tackle the subject of teen suicide in a distinctive way. Although some of its metaphysical tangents seem excessive, the play merits respect for its serious and unusual treatment of the subject.
"Following Sarah" runs through Aug. 26 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann Street in Baltimore. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m.; there also are Thursday performances Aug. 9 and 23 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12. Call 410-276-7837 or go to http://www.fpct.org.