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Review: SHS debuts “Leaves” at Connecticut Drama Festival

March 29, 2019

On the weekend of March 8 the Strawberry Hill Players performed a 45-minute rendition of the play “Leaves,” by Lucy Caldwell, at the Connecticut Drama Festival in Redding. Senior Cara Grasso directed the production, which the Players debuted in a preview on March 1 at Stamford High to get feedback before the competition.

“Leaves,” which takes place in Northern Ireland, follows a family as they struggle to find understanding and peace when daughter, Lori (played by Madeline Maxfield), returns home from college after having attempted suicide. Immediately the audience is thrust into the heavy atmosphere as parents Phyllis (played by senior Nicole Henkel) and David (junior Andrew Patashnik) and daughters Clover (Rebecca Ferrante) and Poppy (Alex Wynne) sit around a dimly lit dining table clinking their forks in awkward silence. Their inability to communicate, a theme that weaves throughout the entire play, is highlighted in these first few moments.

Within just 45 minutes so much is revealed about the characters’ mindsets, especially at each of their breaking points. Henkel captures the pain and fear that accompanies a mother’s undying love for her children in her subtle, but loaded (and perfectly timed), silences while trying to talk to Lori. The few moments where she breaks her facade of put-togetherness, like when she slams a chair and screams at her husband, are particularly raw and heartbreaking. The same goes for Patashnik, whose anger comes as a shock against his character’s otherwise reserved and soft-spoken nature. The bond between the three sisters was so believable. Ferrante seamlessly flips between resentful digs to playful laughter in the way only real sisters can perfect. Wynne, as the youngest sister, used a thoughtful balance of energy to depict her character’s hopeful yearning to get approval from her sisters.

The show addresses the relevant issue of mental health and the crushing implications of depression. Maxfield skillfully emphasized the symptoms of her character’s depression. Everything from her subtle nervous ticks and pained glances to her rambling monologues where she can’t find the words to describe how she feels help the audience grasp her confusion and hopelessness.

One of the most notable aspects of “Leaves,” was the way in which the simplicity of the set design contributed to so many more complex meanings. Open wooden panels, as opposed to closed off walls, made up the framing of the house. In the Q&A following the performance, Grasso explained how they can be interpreted in many ways. Some might see the openness as a hopeful sign that Lori will eventually be able to express herself transparently, while others might see them more as the bars of a jail cell, highlighting Lori’s trapped feeling inside her own home. To me, the emptiness inside the home helped establish the somber tone and the feeling of discomfort or being lost even in a familiar place. Not only was the set’s simplicity significant to the meaning of the play, but it also helped in moving it off the stage as efficiently as possible to meet CDA’s strict time requirements.

The show maintained a perfect balance of portraying important details to get across the storyline and develop the characters while still leaving me eager to see more. My favorite moment was when the whole family happily sings two lines of “Polly Wolly Doodle,” played and sung by Patashnik with the perfect jovial nature of a father. This last cheerful interaction implies that there is still hope.

The Strawberry Hill Players received the Theatrical Excellence Award for the performance overall. In addition, Ferrante and Wynne each received the All Connecticut Cast Award and Maxfield was awarded Outstanding Actress.

Shayna Druckman is a senior at Stamford High School. This piece first appeared in The Round Table, a publication of Stamford High School.