With "The Outsiders", based on the well-read novel by S.E. Hinton, and adapted by Christopher Sergel, Seattle Children's Theatre aims at a somewhat older than usual audience. The story of gang conflict in the 1960's assumes an awareness of such issues as class division based on socio-economic differences, random violence and peer pressure. It's filled with the popular culture and slang of decades ago, but from the rapt attention of the opening night audience, it's still powerfully relevant.
Part of that is a credit to a solid cast of graduate level acting students from the University of Washington's Professional Actor Training Program, part to the respectful and honest direction by Linda Hartzel, and part to the unchanging nature of misunderstanding, fear and distrust between people. This may be rather old-hat melodrama, but for this audience it was an intense, authentic and affecting.
In the central role of Ponyboy, Richard Lopez brings an easy, natural presence to the sensitive, but grounded character. He is an outsider because he's a "greaser", a member of a less financially well-off clique, but also because he's a reader, a boy with dreams greater than the world in which he finds himself. Mr. Lopez is able to convincingly present this young man as someone who is fully aware and engaged with his friends, but who also spends time in a world of classic literature. As his friend, Jonny, Jonathan Martin shows us the cost of too much abuse, both physical and psychological. He does this without ever making it maudlin or pleading, and as a result his demise is genuinely affecting. Other outstanding performances were given by Mark Kuntz, as Dallas, a tough guy who combines street-style with some clear marks of leadership, albeit undirected. I was also very impressed with Emily Cedergreen, an understudy who stepped into the role of Cherry, and played her with clarity, conviction and strong appeal.
The set design (Matthew Smucker) used harsh, chainlink fence panels, recalling "West Side Story", that were effective if not outstanding. The lighting design, however, by Michael Wellborn, was stunning, particularly a cloth panel and lighting wall of fire in the play's most terrible incident. Fluid movement between lighting areas kept the action varied and well-paced. The fight scenes, expertly choreographed by Geoffrey Alm, were outstanding.
I'm not sure this is a great piece of literature by any means, nor even that it's particularly distinguished (as opposed to successful). It is, however, a terrific way to get kids to talk about very real issues of violence, peer pressure, social stratification, discrimination and isolation. In the post-play discussion it was evident that nearly every kid in the audience knew exactly what was going on in this story, and had parallels in their own lives. SCT is to be commended for addressing such an important issue, Linda Hartzell is to be admired for her artistic integrity in the presentation, and we are all to be a bit chagrined that it remains so immediate a concern.
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