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A curtain falls at N. Harford

The Baltimore Sun

A stagehand could not get a rusty spotlight to focus. One actor forgot where he was to exit and another lost his prop.

The few last-minute glitches that beset the production of Our Town at North Harford Middle School last week did not dismay the seasoned directors who have guided eighth-grade students for the past 30 years.

The lead player fretted about forgetting a line.

"Don't panic if you miss a line," said Tom Berg, a social studies teacher at the Pylesville school. "Just give yourself a minute and look for me. I have the playbook."

Since 1978, the play has been the thing for Berg and colleague Ginger Huller. The teachers and students in their annually changing class of 13-year-olds have voiced the words of Shakespeare as well as American and other British playwrights. But with the fourth and final production of Our Town, the curtain may have fallen for the last time.

Huller and Berg are not quite ready to retire, but they want to teach for the next few years without fretting over casting, staging and rehearsing long hours after class.

"After 30 years and so many plays, we have decided it is time for us to end the tradition," said Huller, a language arts teacher. "All good things must come to an end."

But not before one last restaging of Thornton Wilder's tale of life in a small New England town.

"It's my favorite, because it is all about America," Huller said. "That is why it is so endearing and enduring."

Staging the drama four times shows their devotion to Our Town, Berg said.

"It's the universality," he said. "I see at rehearsals how the students are inferring its meaning in their own lives."

For Kaitlyn Dunn, who played the wife of the newspaper editor, it was "just too cool. I get to be a whole new person in a different time period."

The play requires a cast and crew of nearly 40, including three who shared the narrator's lengthy dialogue. It meant memorizing 90 pages and attending hours of practice.

"It is amazing that so many kids give up the time and energy," Berg said. "These are the same kids I can't get to do homework. But they will stay after school for hours of practice and learn their lines."

The work culminates in one show. It's rarely a sellout for the 735-seat auditorium in the round or, at $3 a ticket, a moneymaker. The audience typically includes families and friends of the class and several graduates who return to see how their successors fare on stage.

"When we have a controversial play like Inherit the Wind, we might have a sellout," Berg said.

The tradition began with one act of Romeo and Juliet performed for parents and graduated to full productions of Macbeth, Anne Frank and Cheaper by the Dozen, among others.

The teachers have tied lessons to play themes - a Holocaust survivor, a creationist and a public defender offered the class real-life insights into issues they were staging. Flowers for Algernon prompted a trip to a learning center for developmentally disabled adults.

The cast gave schoolmates a preview last week, hoping they would return Friday evening to watch the whole story unfold.

Huller reminded the young audiences, many of whom had never seen a live production, that they could not talk back to the characters as they might to a TV screen. Neither would it be like going to the movies, with popcorn and soda in the lobby. The audience would have to watch, listen and use imagination, she said.

"There is not much scenery," she said. "Concentrate on the characters and what they have to say."

Applause was acceptable, whistling definitely was not, she said.

The two teachers gave each other a thumbs-up after the preview.

"I am always amazed at what an eighth-grader can do," Huller said.

Berg called the outcome satisfying.

"We see the metamorphosis from unskilled and untamed to mature actors," he said. "It is a slow evolution, but one that is wonderful to behold."

Berg wrote his farewell into an essay printed in the program.

"We never expected to do this for 30 years," he said. "There's probably a bit of insanity involved. But we have enjoyed working together and with the kids. It has been a great pleasure, with trials and tribulations like any other pleasure."

Huller asked the cast to read her "Goodbye to the Theatre" at the last curtain call. The whimsical poem ran through adieus to the hours of work and to the minutes of grandeur that are all part of the magic of drama. She said she hoped it was not a goodbye to drama at North Harford Middle.

"When school starts in September, kids ask when are tryouts," she said. "I know the sixth- and seventh-graders are all wondering if they will have a chance and hoping another teacher will take over."

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