Presenting 3 Winners By Local High School Students

Posted: April 12, 1996

In one of the short plays in the annual collaboration between the Philadelphia Young Playwrights Festival and the Philadelphia Theatre Company, a young woman takes control of her life. In another, an elderly man is losing control over his.

The young woman is the central character in Six Weeks, which was written by Germyce C. McTillman when she was a 12th-grader at Simon Gratz High School. The drama was a winner in the annual Philadelphia Young Playwrights Festival, in which high school students from the city and the surrounding Pennsylvania counties participate.

As the winner of a single prize, Six Weeks has a less prestigious pedigree than either The Purple Heart, the play about the elderly man, which won the local competition as well as an award in Washington, D.C., and the third play on the program, The Ends and the Means, a comedy that won both the local and the national Young Playwrights Festivals. Nor is McTillman's play the best written or most artfully constructed of the three plays.

But in effectively achieving what it sets out to do, it is the most satisfying work in the collaboration.

All three are being staged at the Plays and Players Theatre under the umbrella title ``Writes of Spring.''

Six Weeks pointedly shows what can happen when a teenage girl gets pregnant. Robyn is at the end of her senior year, waiting for word from a prestigious black college, when she discovers she is expecting.

Through conversations with her best friend, who already quit school to have a baby; her feckless boyfriend, who thinks that by having a baby he is ``making his mark in the world''; and her deeply disappointed mother - and by assessing her own goals, a process influenced by her winning a full college scholarship - Robyn comes to a decision on what to do about her pregnancy.

McTillman's scenes are obvious and her dialogue is direct and ordinary, but so is life. Although the play sometimes has the earnest, preachy air of a high school assembly presentation, its situations and characters feel authentic. McTillman covers her subject well and earns her conclusion.

The production is ably directed by Seth Rozin. In her portrayal of Robyn, Joyce D. Willis gives the sense that her character is maturing before our eyes, and, of course, she is. Willis is ably supported by Juanita Vega, who plays the friend; Jann Ellis, the mother; and Thomas W. Fowler Jr., the macho boyfriend.

In The Purple Heart, Adam Goldberg's ambitions reach a bit beyond his considerable playwriting skills. Written when Goldberg was an 11th-grader at William Penn Charter School, the play seeks to chronicle the physical and mental decline of an elderly man through his relationship with his grandson.

In the first scene, Albert, the grandfather, is 73 and has just been placed in an old age home because he can no longer be trusted to live alone. In the second scene he is 80, and his physical and mental decline is quite advanced.

The conversation between Albert and the grandson, Adam, is well-written, vigorous and often humorous, but the elderly man's state of mind and body is not totally convincing at either age. The 73-year-old Albert seems too hale and hearty and mentally sharp; the 80-year-old Albert still is too physically vigorous, and he vacillates so strongly between periods of mental acuity and total forgetfulness that neither seems genuine.

While Goldberg hasn't mastered the complexity of elderly decline, he is not particularly helped by Harry Philibosian's portrayal of Albert. His active performance as the bluff, bragging and outspoken elderly man is outwardly engaging, but it doesn't convey much sense of Albert's feelings and anxieties. Jesse Bernstein plays the grandson at 13 and 20; his performance is adept at either age.

The Ends and the Means, which Jonathan Kravis wrote as an 11th-grader at Cheltenham High School, is a light comedy about four Princeton philosophy students who set out to break into a bank vault to get money for their college expenses. In the safe they discover a ticking bomb, set by another student protesting the capitalist system, and they encounter a cleaning woman and a female security guard.

The play's sophomoric humor is chiefly derived from the philosophic banter among the student burglars. They are ready at the least provocation to argue about free will versus determinism, about whether God is good, and about other, more obscure, learned matters that prove Kravis' erudition (and my ignorance).

Under Joe Leonardo's direction, the play is competently acted, and it is silly enough to be entertaining. While I didn't find it all that funny, I particularly liked one exchange. A student asks rhetorically: ``How did I end up a bank robber?'' Another replies: ``You're a philosophy major. What else are you going to do for a living?''

WRITES OF SPRING Sets by Peter C. Harvey; costumes by Janus Stefanowicz; lighting by Wes Hacking.

``The Ends and the Means'' written by Jonathan Kravis; directed by Joe Leonardo; featuring Trevor Davis, Anthony M. Giampetro and Juanita Vega.

``Six Weeks'' written by Germyce C. McTillman; directed by Seth Rozin; featuring Jann Ellis, Connie Norwood and Joyce D. Willis.

``The Purple Heart'' written by Adam Goldberg; directed by Mark Hallen; featuring Jesse Bernstein, Thomas W. Fowler Jr. and Harry Philibosian.

Playing at: Plays and Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey St., through April 20. Tickets are $15; $12 for students and seniors. Information: 215-735-0631.

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