Stephen Karam’s dark and witty comedic stage drama, “Speech and Debate,” follows three high school students in a very conservative community as they struggle to be noticed and listened to by the controlling adults who surround them.
The playwright did not disappoint as he hilariously took jabs at political parties, politicians and society as a whole. Karam left no party or person safe from being the butt of a joke that left the audience roaring in laughter.
Karam addressed the controversial topics of sexuality, abortion and censorship through the eyes of his adolescent characters with the same flawless integration of gravity and comedy that he used to poke fun at politicians from the very first scene.
The play was filled with dialogue in fantastically orchestrated circles about subjects that don’t get addressed, and poked fun at the town’s close-minded society.
“[Karam] really put his finger on the pulse of just how hard it is to be a kid in America today,” said Richard Hess, the director of “Speech and Debate” and the CCM drama department chair for over 20 years.
“Underneath the surface every character is really struggling with individual issues. It is a rough world. This play gives a balance to the department because they don’t do very many contemporary productions.”
While the characters spent the play trying to make their voices heard, one of the loudest voices in the theater was that of Katie Langham, who played Diwata, a quirky and sarcastic outcast with dreams of the theater.
The first time we meet Diwata she sings a sarcastic song for her web diary about a director who has a problem of “miscasting” the school plays, meaning he doesn’t give the talented Diwata a role, and we realize that this drama queen uses her uniqueness as a tool to stand out rather than as something to hide.
Every other time Diwata spoke, the audience roared with laughter at the sarcastic comments that streamed out from her completely inappropriate lack of filter. This rollercoaster ride of an adolescent character would not have been nearly as delightful without Langhams’s perfectly over-the-top dramatic flair as she nailed her role as a strong female lead.
The self-proclaimed captain of the Speech and Debate team’s performance would not have been quite as endearing were it not for the performances of her reluctant team members Solomon, played by Owen Alderson, and Howie, played by Ryan Garrett.
Solomon started the show as a socially awkward and sheltered journalist trying to catch his big break with a controversial headline, but the audience watched as Solomon’s motivations changed and he transformed into a completely different person by the end of the show.
Alderson’s dynamic performance captured what it is like to be a lost teenager in a world where adults try to decide everything for you; he managed to pull the audience in on his journey of maturity and coming to terms with his own sexuality, adding more depth to his performance through idiosyncrasies that helped develop his character.
Howie, an openly gay transfer student who is obviously not a fan of the conservative community he has moved into, or his fellow leads for that matter, tries to seem apathetic about the issues in the town.
Garrett puts on a very believable performance as the voice of reason alongside the outlandish Diwata and the self-involved Solomon.
All of the actors really committed to their roles as high school kids, raising their voices, talking over each other, and threatening to expose each other’s secrets. When one of the adult characters walked in, you could see the dynamic between the three main characters change in the same way that it changes in reality when adults intrude.
“This is homegrown, low-budget theatre, but because of the integrity of the cast, nobody would ever know that,” said Hess, the show’s director.
And when the lights came on at the end of the two hour production, it was shocking at how fast time had passed while audience members were absorbed in the little world that the cast so eloquently created despite minimal set and scenery, much of which the cast themselves helped pick out.
Sound designer Jake Jobes chose contemporary music for every transition in the play, resulting in humming college students across the audience.
Part of what made the play so enjoyable is how obvious it was that the cast was having fun.
Cast members danced to the music as they moved props during transitions in the show, and danced off stage at the end.
Despite the fact that this was not a musical, a moment must be taken to acknowledge the few songs that Langham sang beautifully, the talented harmonizing of the cast and the hilarious dance number that had the cast stripped down to nude undergarments.
The current music choices as well as the online chatting scenes and time spent on cell phones by the characters made this a very relatable, contemporary show for college students, and a lovable show for all.
Hess described the play as an “awkward, adolescent and wonderful” story of young people who band together and refuse to let adults snuff out their dreams, and the cast did the inspiring storyline justice.