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Manchester Valley High School production recalls student's suicide

SuicideHigh SchoolsSchools

Sitting on the stage, listening to comments from their director and drama teacher, the cast of the one-act play "Breathe" was all smiles.

The group of teenagers teased each other, laughed at comments and seemed pleased with their performance. It wasn't an easy journey for these students at Manchester Valley High School to get to this point.

Inspired by actual events, "Breathe" deals with the suicide of a student and its effects on those who knew her.

The show is scheduled to be performed Friday, Jan. 17, at the school.

In the summer of 2012, a sophomore at the school committed suicide. She was a member of the Manchester Valley's Drama Club and many of the cast's upperclassmen knew her, including the play's author and director, Arcadia Ewell.

"I started writing it about a year ago," said Ewell, now a senior. "I did a lot of research on the grieving process, and a lot of it is experienced-based. It was a way I could honor her."

Ewell, 17, wrote the play for an independent study project as a junior under Bobbi Vinson, the school's drama teacher, during the 2012-2013 school year. As it came together, the two talked about Ewell directing the play for the school's annual senior one-act production. They also discussed presenting it at the Maryland Thespian Festival, which this year is on Friday, Jan. 24, and Saturday, Jan. 25.

Vinson put together a panel of former students who had been to the festival to discuss the play and its possibilities. "They read the show and were hesitant," Ewell said. "I went back and edited it. The show got to the point where everybody agreed it had potential and could make a difference."

"I'm really impressed with the play," Vinson said. "I have read so many bad plays by published authors. I just think this is very strong piece ... and she's a student."

While everyone was aware of what the play was about during tryouts, when the cast came together for the first rehearsal, they started in a circle, according to Vinson.

"We talked about the depth of the show, and that we were there for each other," Vinson said. "They sat down and really talked about how they were feeling. There were tears."

"It has been a very long and hard process," acknowledged Jenna Klaverweiden, 17, who plays the lead, Kristie, in the play.

A member of the Drama Club for two years, Klaverweiden did not know the sophomore. "I was close to a lot of people who did know her," she said. That helped her in her role as the student's best friend. "I definitely saw the effect. It was a terrible situation. Any situation like that is terrible."

Working on the play has been a good experience, the senior added, and the role is one of her favorites.

"As serious and sad as the mood of the show is, I really enjoyed myself," Klaverweiden said. "I'm very lucky to have this role. I feel very honored I got to do it."

Noah Maenner, 15, said his role as Bobby, a friend of Kristie's, required some adjustments.

"It was very challenging," he said. "I am so different than him. I'm really loud and crazy, and out there. He's more reserved. He's not crazy or out there. He is Kristie's rock."

A sophomore, Maenner said he understood the feelings the older members had about the situation.

"I know that this show was really intense for people in the cast," he said. "I understood that. I play a character who could help, and I could help them through it.

"It is a topic not normally talked about. It is a topic that needs to be heard."

The plan is to perform it at the Maryland State Thespian Festival at Huntingtown High School in Calvert County next weekend.

Vinson is taking 23 students to the two-day festival. In addition to performing "Breathe," several students will also perform monologues, and sing solos or duets. They will also attend workshops and watch other school productions.

"After attending last year and watching two days of one-acts, I felt really inspired by it," Ewell said, of last year's festival. "I was really moved ... I had to get it down on paper."

The senior now is busy in her first role as director for the premiere of her first play.

"It is a surreal experience," Ewell said. "We've worked so hard for this to come to life."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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