By Leigh Austin
I somehow missed the bizarre turn of events that made national news in Fall 2011 about a group of LeRoy, New York, teenagers struck with a mysterious and wholly inexplicable ailment; but, after attending Rivendell Theatre Ensemble’s Firebirds Take the Field, a dramatization of the real life story, I was incredibly happy to have made this oversight. Walking into the theatre without any preconceived notions made the humorous, suspenseful, and dramatic play all the more exciting, and I can officially say that Rivendell has made a full-fledged fan of me after presenting yet another innovative, female-empowered production.
Though inspired by events from 2011, Lynn Rosen’s fictional account takes place in present day, twenty-five years after acclaimed molecular neuroscientist Avery Kahn (Meighan Gerachis) left her hometown of Highland Falls, NY, for college and her ambitious career aspirations. When a childhood friend, Helen (Rebecca Spence), reaches out imploring Avery to look into the spreading sickness that the town has derisively deemed “girl disease,” Avery both begrudgingly and eagerly returns home to investigate the illness. The trip quickly becomes more than Avery bargained for as old wounds from the past surface, and Avery gets involved in a much more intimate capacity than she imagined.
While Rosen’s script is overall a thought-provoking, engaging analysis of the body/mind connection and of our society’s perceptions of mental illness, there are a few scenes in the play that interrupt the flow and might be better served removed. That being said, the stellar cast of (mostly) women outweigh any of the script’s flaws. Spence and Gerachis standout in their roles, both perfectly capturing the uniqueness and humor of their characters without sacrificing the raw, emotional realness. Two of the town’s inflicted cheerleaders, Agatha Cooper (Hannah Toriumi), and Lucia Bowen (Aurora Real de Asua), are perfectly preppy and catty externally as they struggle to cope with deep-rooted internal anguish; and Helen’s daughter Penelope Landis (Jessica Ervin) captures the essence of an adolescent girl just trying to fit in (to which so many of us can relate).
Supporting characters Kathy Bowen (Tara Mallen) and Mark Cooper (Josh Odor) take away more from the show than they add to it, but it’s difficult to tell whether these roles could be worthwhile even with stronger performers. This is an area in which the script might be revisited to enhance the production.
All in all, though, when the strobe lights finally peter out on this production, the audience is left with a lot of wonderful questions to consider: how does society view medical conditions like mental illness which are characterized more by psychology than biology (at least outwardly)? How does socioeconomic status affect the way we perceive mental illness? And, perhaps most importantly in our current political climate, what role does being a woman play in diagnosing and recognizing ailments?
Firebirds Take the Field runs at Rivendell Ensemble Theatre through May 27th. More info.
The Hawk was a common name for the cold, winter wind in Chicago, possibly even predating "the Windy City." Additionally, a hawk can see up to eight times more clearly than the human eye.