Call it paranoia, growing pains, overactive hormones or simply rebellion, teens in high school are often going through a rough time. In Stephen Karam's Speech & Debate, we encounter three protagonists who are chafing against the restrictions, pressures and alienating anxieties of high school life. Solomon is an aspiring journalist, but the editorial he wants to write about abortion and the story he wants to dig into — about the mayor of Salem, Ore., cruising the Web for sex with young men — raise red flags with his faculty advisor. Howie is the gay transfer student whose online chat with the mayor is the first lead Solomon wishes to pursue, and Diwata is the blooming artiste who publishes the blog where Solomon found Howie's provocative chat uploaded.
With Diwata's failure to secure leading roles in the school's last two musical productions, and with her deep affection for Arthur Miller's The Crucible, it's little wonder that she sees a similarity between new millennium Salem, Ore., and the infamous Salem, Mass., of the 1692 witch trials. What was rather remarkable was the vividness that Chaos Ensemble, the teen group based at Providence High School, brought to their characterizations of the teens and the overall polish of the production they brought to Duke Energy Theatre at Spirit Square.
Undercutting Diwata's sense of persecution is the vendetta she is promoting, via her little speech and debate club, against the drama teacher who has tormented her. In that campaign, she is more like Abigail Williams and Mary Warren of Miller's tragedy than his heroes. Yet Providence junior Olivia Danzell made Diwata's weirdness, pushiness and self-absorption so likable and funny that much of Karam's devilish thrust was clouded by her charm. The essence of Diwata's confusion and Karam's satire crystallized late in the action when she turned on Solomon indignantly and protested, "You read my blog!!"
As the intrepid reporter, Tanner Agle was admirably nuanced in bringing out the moral ambiguities of Solomon. While righteously and vigilantly hunting down the truth about a hypocritical public official, Solomon flares up with surprising indignation when Diwata threatens to expose secrets about his sexuality to further her agenda. I wouldn't have thought Solomon would miss this blatant contradiction, but Agle helped me believe.
Playing the unlikely sex object among this teen trio, Tony Zanghi's first scene as Howie is performed silently, lolling in front of his computer and typing. We follow this pivotal chat with the mayor thanks to stage director James Yost's mastery of PowerPoint. Text of the conversation unfurled with convincing timing upstage behind Zanghi, yet he almost always typed at the precise moments required — presumably because the same presentation was really on his laptop.
Anne Lambert was the lone adult in the cast, ably doubling as the teacher who nixes Solomon's controversial initiatives and the reporter who will publicize Diwata's speech and debate activities. The big question for me, after seeing The Wrestling Season, which Chaos brought to Duke Energy last December, was whether Karam should have fortified his vision of adolescence with a few more peers, parents and the oft-mentioned targets of the teens' resentments. At 91 minutes, Speech &Debate clocked in at a full 37 minutes longer than Wrestling, putting more responsibility on the lead actors' shoulders. They all came through handsomely. Too bad more Chaos fans didn't turn out.