RISING SUN — Fans of the 1988 film “Heathers” and the musical it inspired will be familiar with how the show equips dark humor to tackle even darker themes against the backdrop of fictional Westberg High School in the 1980s.
But Street Lamp Community Theatre’s production of “Heathers,” with an all-high school cast, gives the show’s messages even more relevance as the actors confront some of the same issues their teen characters are facing.
The show will run at SLCT, located at Valley View Drive in Rising Sun, on Jan 24-26, Jan. 31 and Feb. 1-2. The show will feature two casts sharing the roles. Tickets are available at streetlampproductions.org.
While “Heathers” is set in the 1980s, Julia Koncurat, one of the actors playing the character Martha, said the show deals with a lot of issues that teenagers still face today such as suicide and abusive relationships — issues that she said are not addressed enough in theater.
“There’s a lot of comedy to it, but there’s also a lot of reality to it,” Koncurat said. “I think it’s really interesting how it builds up to this message of unity and friendship, and how it’s not afraid to deal with serious themes and serious issues that teenagers face.”
Laura Woods, executive director of SLCT and the director for this production, said that when the teen actors told her they wanted to perform “Heathers” this season, she agreed on one conditon: the theater would bring in speakers to talk to the cast about suicide.
Woods said she enjoys directing teen actors because she has seen them grow up over the years, so she feels she owed it to them to educate them about how to deal with suicidal thoughts that they or people they know may face.
“For us, the goal to help the actors was to educate them on what do do if someone they know is talking about committing suicide,” Woods said.
Woods wanted the teens to know that dealing with suicide should not be a solitary battle.
“What we try to do is tell them you have to go to an adult,” she said. “This is not something to mess around with.”
SLCT will be collecting donations for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at each of the shows. Last year, the theater held a cabaret event, which also raised money for the AFSP.
With such heavy topics discussed in “Heathers,” Simon Gusso, one of the actors playing the character J.D., said the production can be both physically and emotionally draining.
“At least for me personally, it takes a lot out of me after the run is done,” he said.
But the musical balances those serious scenes with lighter moments, according to Koncurat.
The actor said one of her favorite parts of the show is the finale.
“I really like the finale, just that little happy moment at the end when Martha kind of comes on stage and she has this solace,” Koncurat said. “Her character doesn’t really change but it goes through this emotional journey, and at the end she’s kind of accepted more by people and it’s just kind of a really sweet scene that I really like doing.”
Mary Cate Carder, one of the actor’s playing protagonist Veronica Sawyer, agreed that the finale provides a “warm, fuzzy ending.”
“[The show is] all crazy and scary — and also fun at times in the middle and beginning. But then the end is just so redeeming. It’s a good message,” Carder said.
Compared to other roles she has played, Carder said she has found Veronica’s realistic nature very relatable.
“A lot of the characters I end up playing are either super ditzy or evil — it’s either one or the other,” she said. “But Veronica is that normal person in a crazy situation.”
Similarly, Gusso said playing J.D. has been a departure from what he is used to.
“With a lot of the roles that I play, I play the nice kid next door. It’s finally nice to play someone who’s the antagonist and gets to go crazy,” he said, adding that enjoyed doing slow-motion fighting during the song “Fight for Me.”
Koncurat said fat characters often find their bodies being the target of jokes for the audience. But while the Heathers clique and other popular kids often ridicule Martha over her weight, Koncurat said audiences are meant to take Martha’s character more seriously — a difference that the actor has found refreshing.
“It’s not often that you get a character who’s supposed to be fat and is also a serious role,” Koncurat said. “A lot of the times it’s more comedic … It’s definitely different for me to play a serious role and it’s definitely something that I haven’t really done before, so it’s kind of fun to have a new challenge with that.”
Another challenge Koncurat faced was learning to be vulnerable with a theater audience during her solo in the show.
“It’s really scary for me because ‘Kindergarten Boyfriend’ is kind of a really emotional song,” she said. “When I’m singing it at home, it’s different because I’m like ‘Oh yeah, I can do this.’ But when I’m singing in front of people and I don’t know them, that’s really scary … It’s kind of intimidating to have these really real emotions on stage and as raw as they are for Martha.”
Carder said the role of Veronica taught her that she was capable of more than she even realized.
“I didn’t know that I could sing some of these notes until I had to do them in rehearsal in front of the entire cast and I got very scared. And then they just happened and I was like ‘Wow, I guess I can do it,’” she said.
Gusso, who uses a prop gun in the show, said at first he was intimidated to use a replica of such a destructive weapon.
“They gave us the prop gun for the first time and you put it in there and I’m like ‘This is fine. It’s just a prop.’ But it feels so real and it’s super scary,” he said.
Once “Heathers” completes its run at SLCT, Woods hopes the show’s final message about the importance of being kind to others will extend into the cast’s real life.
“One thing we emphasized with the kids early on was you just never know what’s in anybody’s head, so you can always be a positive light in someone’s life,” she said.
If you or someone you know are thinking about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or use the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. In the case of an immediate threat, call 911.