Alistair Sewell, Karen Moeller and Sophia DeVita in Forward Theater Company's From Up Here
Filled with witty yet honest dialogue, Liz Flahive's From Up Here is a compelling dramedy about school violence. Director Jennifer Uphoff Gray leads a gifted cast through the Forward Theater Company production (through Nov. 23 at Overture Center's Playhouse). Gray's interpretation is carefully crafted yet never heavy handed, reminding us why she's the company's artistic director.
We don't immediately know what's happened to the family we see bustling around a kitchen onstage, but we can immediately see ourselves reflected in the characters. Teen Lauren (Sophia DeVita) shoots withering looks at her newish stepdad, Daniel (Nicholas Harazin), who tries too hard to please. Grace (Karen Moeller) is a working mom whose brisk cheer hints that she might be better at her job than the rest of her life. A free-spirited, mountain-trekking aunt (Rachael Jenison) drops in. And then there's Kenny (Alistair Sewell), a sensitive adolescent whose birthday is being celebrated the same day he returns to school after a troubling incident.
As the play unspools, we glean facts about the family and their place in the community. The tension starts to make sense as we learn what the characters have been through recently, and how they're trying to recover from the aforementioned incident.
The teen actors are particularly talented. It's excruciating enough to be a "typical" teenager navigating the terrain of high school. It's even harder when your classmates describe you as a psycho in bathroom graffiti. Sewell subtly captures how uneasy Kenny feels about dealing with messy emotions. You can see this as he averts his eyes, shrugs off physical contact and tries to vanish within himself. It's heartening when Kenny shows resiliency and self-awareness, and his description of classmates' behaviors -- and the way these actions chipped away at his soul -- weighed heavily on my heart as I watched the plot unfold.
Parents of teen girls will marvel at DeVita's spookily accurate performance. Tart-tongued and perennially exasperated, she is an intense presence. When she comes to her brother's defense after a betrayal, we see the depths of her love and loyalty, even though she has been marred by the fallout of his actions. As Charlie, a good-hearted classmate hopelessly crushing on Lauren, Joshua Biatch is an immensely appealing goofball. A scene with the three of them in the school parking lot is masterful. It underscores, with humor and hope, how we're all fumbling through life, trying to connect with each other.
Sound designer Joe Cerqua has selected songs from Top 40 radio that make this show, which opened off Broadway in 2008, feel current. Sadly, the subject matter remains a concern as our country reacts to a school shooting in Washington just last month. Meanwhile, scenic designer Joseph Vargas makes it look like a storm has just blown through the family's neighborhood. Objects from their daily lives -- a rake, a mailbox, a chair -- are strewn all around. A tidy suburban kitchen, a grim tray of cafeteria food and the interior of a car remind lend a sense of familiarity to the proceedings. As we see the family struggle, we recognize their humanity and know they are doing the best they can in a messy situation.