High School Confidential

A few weeks before he was supposed to send his newly written play to a Seattle theater company, Robert Lewis Vaughan experienced a sudden change of heart. The Colorado Springs native (now a New Yorker) says that he had a "gut feeling" that he should submit the drama, which is set in an unnamed hamlet near the Garden of the Gods, to Denver's Curious Theatre Company. As the director of professional rights for Dramatists Play Service, Vaughan had worked with Curious when artistic director Chip Walton mounted an acclaimed regional premiere of Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive last spring. After conferring with his somewhat hesitant agent, Vaughan express-mailed Praying for Rain to Denver, with the stipulation that Walton would have only a week to decide whether to produce the story about a high school teacher's devotion to a student who becomes embroiled in a violent incident.

While his agent's strict time limit seemed unreasonable even to Vaughan, it was hardly a concern the next day when Walton received the script -- and Columbine High School became engulfed in cataclysmic horror. "I heard about the shootings relatively early here," says Vaughan. "And I called Chip and said, 'If you need more time or you just want to send it back, that's fine.'" Over the next several days and weeks, the community groped its way through a soul-numbing fog of confusion and grief, even as a steady barrage of media coverage sensationalized the carnage instead of illuminating ways to live in its churning wake. Despite the fact that public acts of comfort were nearly always followed by even more public scenes of controversy, Walton eventually decided to give Praying for Rain its world premiere in Denver. The play opens this weekend for a scheduled seven-week run at the Acoma Center.

"I said to the cast at one of the first read-throughs that appearances can be deceiving," says Walton. "And that even though the timing and the context of the project may look like one thing, it's actually an incredibly responsible thing to do." Following in the tradition of such luminaries as George Bernard Shaw, who wrote witty comedies about prevailing social issues, and Bertolt Brecht, whose raw, unadorned productions of his own parable-plays were intended to provoke revolutionary social change, Walton has for the past three seasons maintained a commitment to produce high-quality productions that "go into the issues of whatever play we're working on." With Praying for Rain, he says, "It's scapegoating, which is such a political football that everybody -- from media, to legislators, to individuals -- wants to find a place to conveniently tuck away blame. But the important and interesting and exciting thing about this play is that it doesn't do that. This is a very human exploration of the reality that no one thing causes this, that we all have to take a certain level of responsibility."

That sense of communal rectitude is put to the test in one of the play's first scenes, when a teacher, known throughout as Miss K, tries to get through to a student whom she's volunteered to supervise during a four-week detention period. "What's your history?" she demands of Marc, a star football player who's been on a collision course with trouble since the beginning of his senior year, when a terrible motorcycle accident stripped him of his ability to play and, more important, of his identity. After having been nearly expelled for trying to make a deal to sell a handgun, Marc is shunned by his ex-girlfriend, Erin, and falls in with a group of newfound "friends" who seem interested only in seeing how often -- and how hard -- Marc will take the fall for their collective actions. Unfortunately, it takes a chance, deadly encounter at a local teen hangout in the bluffs outside of town for Marc to realize the importance of his after-school "history" lessons with Miss K.

Although the play's parallels to real-life events are likely to summon emotions that have been tender since Columbine, neither Walton nor the actors believe that the subject matter should be off limits. Performer Gene Gillette, who plays Marc, says, "I was in New York when all the Columbine stuff happened, and just to see [the television news programs] show that guy, Patrick Ireland, being dragged out of the window over and over again really disturbed me. It made me think about the fact that we have a responsibility when we do things like this. I mean, I didn't do very well in high school, either," says the graduate of Ponderosa High. "But if you can just find someone to latch onto -- like Miss K -- to help you out, things can be a lot better."

That's a sentiment shared by actress Misti McBride, who points out that the show has "remarkable ties" to her own life. The diminutive, wholesome-looking CU-Denver student, who plays Erin, says that during her high school years she was a drug dealer who was suspended three times for fighting and was left for dead in a basement by a group of people who were afraid to take her to the hospital following an overdose. Her fractured existence was further compounded by the fact that her brother was a gang member who went to prison four times for "serious acts of violence and robbery."

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Jim Lillie

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