Monday, March 21, 2011

Perennial Powers Battle It Out in High School Drama in Springfield

Yes, it's March, and yes, the Illinois High School Association is the home of "America's Original March Madness," referring to high school basketball. But there's more to March than just basketball for the IHSA. This weekend, March Madness will mean Drama and Group Interpretation at the University of Illinois-Springfield's Sangamon Auditorium.

High schools present their own productions of published plays, shortened if necessary to suit the IHSA's 40-minute time limit, with students filling all the roles. Stage crews have limited time to put up a whole set and then strike it so that the next play can take over the stage.

If you follow the high school drama competition, you'll notice a lot of powerhouse programs are back, including five-time champions Harvey Thornton and Dolton Thornridge.

Thornton last won the top prize in 1997 with Pearl Cleage's "Hospice," plus they were champions in 1994 ("The Zooman and the Sign," by Charles Fuller), 1991 ("The Rainmaker," by N. Richard Nash), 1989 ("The Amen Corner," by James Baldwin) and 1985 ("The Mighty Gents," by Richard Wesley). They were 5th last year with Lynn Nottage's searing "Ruined," and they'll be back this year with "A Lesson Before Dying," by Romulus Linney, about James, a young African-American man falsely accused of murder in Louisiana in 1948, and a schoolteacher, also black, who is hired to teach James how to die like a man as his execution looms. "A Lesson Before Dying" is scheduled for 9:45 am on Saturday, March 26. Brad Ablin and Marie Wojdelski direct for Thornton.

Thornridge's last championship was in 2008, with August Wilson's "Fences," and they're bringing more August Wilson to state this year, with "Seven Guitars," winner of the 1996 Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It's set in 1948 Pittsburgh, before and after the funeral of bluesman Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton, someone who has seen success and let it slip through his fingers. Thornridge's production of "Seven Guitars" is directed by Yvonne Nesbitt.

Thornridge has had really good luck with Wilson plays, winning Drama championships with "King Hedley II" in 2005 and "The Piano Lesson" in 2004. They also took top honors with Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" in 1990 and Max Frisch's "Firebugs" in 1972, when I happened to be in the audience as a high school student. This year, they'll be opening the Drama Festival at 8:30 am on Friday, March 25.

Defending champion Oak Lawn Community High School is also back, with Jim Leonard, Jr.'s "Anatomy of Gray," a play about healing, faith, love and loss in a small Indiana town in the 1880's. Oak Lawn won last year with William Gibson's "The Miracle Worker," another period piece, and they won in 2006 with Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew." Billy Denton, Theresa Wantiez, and Marcus Wargin are directing "Anatomy of Gray," which will be performed at 11 am on Friday.

Burbank Reavis, winner in 2007 with "Equus," the psychological drama from Peter Shaffer, also emerged as a state finalist from the Oak Lawn Richards sectional. This year, Reavis is offering Melanie Marnich's "These Shining Lives," about women performing dangerous work in a watch factory during the Depression. Directors are Erika Banick and Tom Witting. The performance of "These Shining Lives" is scheduled for 8:30 am on Saturday. I've wanted to see a performance of Marnich's play for some time, and I'm looking forward to Reavis's production.

Rock Island High School just took home the boys' basketball crown last weekend, but they also won the state Drama title way back in 1955 ("Hope Is a Thing with Feathers," by Richard Harrity) and more recently, in 2009 ("The Elephant Man," by Bernard Pomerance). After an 8th place finish last year, the Rocks are back with Pearl Cleage's "Hospice," directed by Rino C. Della Vedova. "Hospice," which won the title for Thornton in 1997, borrows some of its plot from Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" as it tells the story of a poet who ran away to Paris, abandoning her daughter, and how they come together years later when the mother is dying of cancer. Rock Island will perform "Hospice" at 6:30 pm on Friday.

Emerging from the Lake Park sectional to win places at state are Fenton's production of "How I Learned To Drive," another Pulitzer Prize winner, this one a disturbing coming-of-age story about child abuse by Paula Vogel, directed by Mike Mitchell, and Palatine Fremd's take on the Holocaust drama "Kindertransport," by Diane Samuels, directed by Marilyn Berdick. Fenton and Fremd were back-to-back winners in 1969 ("The Romancers," by Edmund Rostand) and 1970 ("Waiting for Godot"), plus Fenton added a championship in 1979 with "Smiles of a Summer Night," a stage version of the Ingmar Bergman movie.

"How I Learned to Drive" is scheduled for 1:30 pm on Friday, while "Kindertransport" finishes out the festival at 11 am on Saturday.

Lemont and Aurora Waubonsie Valley have advanced from the St. Charles North sectional, with Lemont performing "The Diary of Anne Frank," the Pulitzer Prize winner by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, directed by Dan Franke, at 9 pm on Friday, and Waubonsie Valley and director David Calvert offering "Standing on My Knees," John Olive's play about a talented poet who cannot create when she takes the medication she needs for schizophrenia, at 9:45 am on Friday.

From the Normal Community sectional, downstate hopefuls Benton and Belleville West took honors. Both Benton and Belleville West made it to state last year, as well, with Benton taking 3rd with "The Diviners" and West finishing 10th with "Marvin's Room." This time, Benton will perform Jenny Laird's lyrical Appalachian drama "The Ballad Hunter," a Joseph Jefferson nominee for Best New Work when it premiered in Chicago in 1995, directed by Allan and Pam Kimball, at 4 pm on Friday, while Belleville West is tackling "Crimes of the Heart," the Pulitzer Prize winning comedy about three sisters by Beth Henley, directed by John Lodle and Laurie Bielong, scheduled for 7:45 pm on Friday.

And rounding out the competition is Rockford Auburn's version of Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour," a 1934 drama about the destructive power of gossip. Auburn's "Children's Hour" is directed by James L. Crow and scheduled for 2:45 pm on Friday.

You can see the schedule in performance order here. Eight of the twelve plays to be presented are period pieces, while only four are contemporary. And here is the list of state Drama champs from its first year in 1941 up to 2008.

Just for fun, here are the plays in order of when they were first performed, so you can get an idea of what kinds of plays are chosen by Illinois high school drama directors:

1934: The Children's Hour
1955: The Diary of Anne Frank
1979: Crimes of the Heart
1983: Hospice
1983: Standing on My Knees
1993: Kindertransport
1995: The Ballad Hunter
1995: Seven Guitars
1997: How I Learned to Drive
2000: A Lesson Before Dying
2005: Anatomy of Gray
2010: These Shining Lives

Check back this weekend to find out what I thought about all these plays in performance!

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