Forward Theater’s ‘From Up Here’ Strains for Normalcy

Forward Theater’s ‘From Up Here’ Strains for Normalcy
Sophia DeVita, Alistair Sewell and Joshua Biatch try to navigate the high-school minefield in Forward Theater's production of 'From Up Here.'

Families with teenaged kids know that things like normalcy and functionality are forever hanging in the balance—sometimes, it only takes one unexpected crisis or hiccup to toss everything into complete chaos.

Now imagine that crisis had the potential to utterly devastate a community, and you‘ll understand why the breakfast routine of the Barretts, the family at the center of Liz Flahive’s From Up Here, seems so forced and brittle. Especially when it involves stepdad Daniel (Nicholas Harazin) having to search Kenny’s (Alistair Sewell) backpack for sharp objects before sending him back to school.

Rather than embracing the dark and sensational aspects of school violence, Flahive flips the script the other way, focusing on the quirky-funny ways its characters try to recover from the aftermath of an almost-event. Forward Theater‘s production (playing through November 23 in the Overture Center Playhouse) amplifies that vibe, and the strong cast runs with it, creating a set of interesting, multidimensional characters. In particular, the cast’s four-pack of teens rocks it, showing both great talent and depth.

As Kenny, Alistair Sewell effortlessly captures the physical aspects of his character—he’s quiet and pinched, slouching and forever jamming his hands into his pockets, as if he might somehow find a way to fold into himself and disappear. He wanted recognition, but not as the school psycho. Sophia DeVita throws up prickly walls as Kenny’s sister Lauren, exuding a tough-teen exterior that belies some powerful emotions beneath. Joshua Biatch is hysterical as a motor-mouthed and, um, musically inclined student with a thing for Lauren. The scene in which he awkwardly guitar-serenades her—in front of her brother, no less—is one of the play’s most sweet and touching.

Flahive’s play isn’t much interested in examining the forces that drove Kenny to the brink of violence—the script takes its time dropping hints that sketch in what he’s done, and he only actually discusses the students who tormented him briefly with Caroline (Rachael Jenison), his crunchy, globe-trotting aunt, late in the play. But it’s acutely concerned with how everyone’s reacting and recovering (or not recovering). Director Jennifer Uphoff Gray has done a great job drawing these angles out of her cast. You can almost see muscles straining in Karen Moeller’s smile as she plays Grace, Kenny’s harried, go-getter mom. It’s clear she’s desperate to regain control over her world, and can’t stop herself from forcing the issue.

The most affecting moments come when the masks slip a little and the raw emotion escapes. Like when DeVita’s Lauren goes H.A.M. on an honor student (Frost White) who’s sneakily trying to take advantage of her brother’s vulnerable situation. At another point, Grace, Caroline and Kenny are having an impromptu picnic at Caroline’s campsite, and Kenny learns that his mom’s given away his dogs because one of them bit him earlier that morning. “Maybe I’ll just take something of yours away,” he darkly mutters. The interchange reveals another hint of his underlying rage and powerlessness that the script largely leaves unexplored.  

Flahive’s play has its weaknesses. There are points where the sitcom-quirkiness of the plot distracts and strains credibility, Grace’s unhinged reaction to hitting her personal breaking point sounds comical when she describes it in the local police station holding cell, but the reality is that the consequences would be pretty severe, both for her and her besieged family. The unresolved subplot tension between Grace and Daniel over his desire to have kids with her remains that way.

I appreciate the efforts to modernize the proceedings by punctuating the scene changes with current (and slightly less current) top-40 tunes, but the choices sound designer Joe Cerqua has made feel awfully heavy-handed—they’re the kind of thing that would probably earn an eye-roll from Lauren. Joseph Varga’s set is much more effective at reinforcing the play’s message—it looks like a Magritte scattered by a particularly powerful gust of wind, with whitewashed doorways, chairs and household objects hovering in the air above and on the sides of the stage.  

If anything, the issues surrounding school violence are even more pointed than they were when Flahive wrote her play six years ago, particularly with the proliferation of cell phones and social media, a pair of tools that only amplify kids’ ability to bully and mistreat each other. Forward’s production reinforces the idea that there’s a way out and a way back from the brink for all of us. It’s just not going to be easy—or mess-free.

From Up Here runs through November 23 at the Overture Center Playhouse. For more information, visit forwardtheater.com

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