Runners tread a hard road in 'Following Sarah'

Powerful, intense and haunting best describes Venus Theatre's "Following Sarah," a play that follows five female cross-country runners at a prestigious boarding school as they try to deal with a major, life-changing event.

The play, Venus Theatre's first production of the new season, was written by Baltimore eighth-grade science teacher Rich Espey. It opened at the C Street theater on April 4 and runs through April 28.

Espey said that the tragic incident at the heart of the play, which he did not want to give away, happened about 20 years ago at a school in Georgia. At the time he was teaching in Atlanta at a different school and coaching the cross-country team.

"That event stuck with me and I've been trying to figure out why it happened, so it took me many years to figure out how to write about it," said Espey. "But 'Following Sarah' is about the survivors of that event and the teammates who have to figure out how to move forward and the struggle they have to get to a better path."

The play opens with Sarah, a graduating high school senior, being pushed hard by her coach during a training session. As she races in and out of various sides of the theater with her coach standing in the middle of the stage with a stop watch, it is obvious the extreme pressure Sarah and her teammates are under to succeed.

"This is your life," her coach yells as Sarah runs by. "Perfect Sarah, right where you want to be…that's my girl…most impressive runner I've ever coached."

Kelsey Painter, who played the lead role in Venus Theatre's "Devil Dog Six," returns to C Street as Sarah. It is obvious from the willowy Painter's portrayal of Sarah that the character is troubled, in spite of being an A student, the team's captain and holder of state and school running records.

Painter gives a good portrayal of a Sarah, who doesn't smile much and recites her championship statistics in an unimpressed, monotone voice, giving the audience insight on her mindset. Although Sarah's teammates love and admire her, Sarah's accomplishments have set a high standard that they feel pressured to equal and surpass.

Ann Fraistat gives a believable performance as the high-strung Kat, who is obsessed with breaking Sarah's record and puts a lot of pressure on the other teammates who want to quit following the tragic incident.

"I've been killing myself to get to 17:57 and all you have to do is run slow so I can get my 17:57," Kat said.

"If I didn't run, would you hate me?" asks Maddie, played by Katie Jeffries, who appeared at Venus last season in "Claudie Hukill."

The play clearly lays out the expectations many young people feel society places on them of needing to garner trophies and awards as examples of their worth.

In addition, there are also issues of drugs and race woven into the plot. Maddie obsesses over her studies and pops pills to help stay awake. Kenya, played with the right amount of street flair by Tricia Homer, who's appeared on stage at Studio Theatre and other area theaters, doesn't like being called the school's African-American diversity project and finds her teammates obsession with Sarah a bit nutty and wants no part of it.

James Jager, appearing for the first time at Venus, is the only male actor in the play. He plays several roles and does a good job of portraying the different characters, except for Sarah's father. He delivered the lines well, but maybe it was the sneakers he wore with his suit that did not make him seem like the fatherly type.

Director and Venus Theatre founder Deb Randall said she chose "Following Sarah" for this season because of the play's strong characters and Espey's obvious knowledge of the pressures teenagers go through.

"His whole exploration (in the play) of peer pressure and perfection has been amazing," Randall said. "He knows this age group and teen angst because he's in there (the classroom) every day."

There is one actual teenager in the play. Laurel High School junior Czarina Joy Flores plays Julia, an Asian lesbian, adopted by white parents, who's thin but thinks she's fat. Flores' portrayal of Julia, a tough-talking, New Yorker with plenty of attitude, appears miles apart from the ever-smiling and friendly Flores off stage, which attests to Flores' acting skills.

Randall usually uses professional actors, but for this production, she held auditions with several students from Laurel High and liked what she saw in Flores.

"I'm so glad she picked me," said Flores, who recently starred in a school production of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." "My drama teacher told us about the play, so my friends and I and several other students auditioned. I thought she (Randall) was just letting us try out and wouldn't really pick one of us. I really was surprised she picked me."

Another first for Randall is that she uses two video screens for several scenes, showing pictures of the runners at races and other places. In two poignant points in the play, as the actors are speaking, a backstage camera is recording them and the action is projected on the screens simultaneously. It added a nice touch and intensity to a powerful story line.

"Following Sarah" was staged last year in Baltimore and won the Carol Weinberg Award for best play at the Baltimore Playwrights Festival. It runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. through April 28 at Venus Theatre, 21 C St. For tickets, go to the online box office or call 202-236-4078.

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