Following last year’s run of her play Dreamtime — a fictional drama based on the 2001 murders of Dartmouth professors Half and Suzanne Zantop by Chelsea teens James Parker and Robert Tulloch — Vermont playwright Maura Campbell returns with another original work inspired by troubled youth.
In Rosalee Was Here, which is being produced by Green Candle Theatre Company, the eponymous character is a 13-year-old girl, played by high schooler Liz Gilbert of Middlesex. Rosalee Darien’s criminal past mandates that she be closely supervised at all times on school grounds. Responsibility for this supervision rests with a paraprofessional assigned to her case, Molly, played by Tracey Girdich, and with school principal Mr. Holiday, played by Dennis McSorley. These three actors constitute the cast in a play that, like Dreamtime, strives to illuminate something deeper than the conflict that brings them together.
Campbell notes that Rosalee’s transgression defines each character’s role in an institutional structure, but the real work of rehabilitating — or simply restraining — her forces them to forge real interpersonal connections. “We all know that there has to be a certain rigidity, or an organization can’t function,” Campbell says. “That is what we see in the story, how that inflexibility is so damaging. If people don’t find ways to bend these rules, the people break.”
If experience is the best teacher, for Girdich and McSorley, it’s also a mixed blessing. Offstage, Girdich works in the child-care field with expertise in crisis intervention. In playing Molly, she says, “The biggest challenge is to not do my job … Molly is not a trained professional. I have to take that away and yet somehow be an influence.”
Likewise, McSorley says playing his part entails suppressing some of his best instincts as an educator. He taught for 24 years in New York City schools and spent 19 of them in special education, where, he says, he “banged heads with principals and mainstream teachers to fight for my kids.” McSorley’s familiarity with the dramatic terrain of hard-luck schools and hard-case students served him well at his Rosalee audition, landing him a part initially scripted for a female character.
Fighting for the kid at the center of this play entails a fair amount of fighting with her. As Rosalee discloses, she’s a complicated individual with a knack for complicating others’ lives — one who’s been diagnosed with pathological aggression, borderline personality disorder, attachment disorder and attention deficit disorder. Despite her awareness of her problems, Rosalee is unrelenting in manipulating her mentor. She’s also unwilling to own up to the sordid crime she committed two years earlier.
Although Gilbert says she finds little common ground with Rosalee, she nevertheless displays a skilled actor’s ability to turn the charm on and off abruptly and convincingly. Her impressive singing voice suggests a quality of goodness buried beneath her character’s hard exterior.
Directing Rosalee Was Here for the first time, Campbell says she’s also done some soul searching. (Others directed the play at the New York Fringe Festival in 2008 and at Virginia’s Studio Roanoke in June 2009.) The staging at Outer Space Café will employ video projections to evoke the larger world of the story and live music to enhance the mood. These production choices, Campbell hopes, will foster a sense of the intimacy of the characters’ relationships — the real subject of the play, in her view.
“The story is not about what [Rosalee] did,” Campbell says. “It’s about how she has been treated and how these three characters together find a way out of this mess.”
As the play’s title suggests, even a girl who has fallen through the cracks deserves to be recognized. “There are lots of people in this world who have had a bad time,” Campbell adds. “Their experience is still meaningful.”
Rosalee Was Here, written and directed by Maura Campbell, produced by Green Candle Theatre Co., Outer Space Café, Burlington. November 6 at 9 p.m.; November 7 & 8, 13-15 and 20-22 at 8 p.m. $20. Info, 863-5966.