- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2006

Few experiences match adolescent best friendships in intensity. The giddy enslavement of such a relationship is examined in the Theater Alliance’s world premiere production of “3/4 of a Mass for St. Vivian,” a work of unusual dexterity by 17-year-old playwright Phoebe Rusch.

Written when Miss Rusch was just 15, “St. Vivian” reveals a young playwright grappling with issues such as friendship, death, sexuality, and whether or not life has meaning. While Miss Rusch could be labeled precocious, the play is free of the sickly sweet pretentiousness and posturing often found in young playwrights.

“St. Vivian” is an endearingly levelheaded look at a feverish, fated time between two teenage girls living in the early 1970s. Growing up, Miss Rusch was weaned on “Aunt Viv” stories, and this play is kindled by her mother’s memories, yet stands on its own as a warmly cerebral inquiry into why we need to love and believe.

“St. Vivian” is seen through the eyes of Emily (Marybeth Fritzky), a prim, small town Lutheran girl newly arrived in the big city. Book-smart and living solely in her head, Emily longs for experiences that will melt the starch from her Peter Pan collars. She finds her answer in Vivian (Nora Woolley), a rich hippie free spirit who flashes the peace sign without a trace of irony.

At first sight, Vivian just seems like your average stoner chick, spouting seeds of pseudo-wisdom from Carlos Castaneda when chemically altered. Yet, Emily detects a glow in Vivian beyond the lava light. She is a voracious reader and a seeker who wants to know everything — before what, Emily wonders. Why the rush?

Emily soon discovers that their friendship has a limit, which makes it all the more acute and grave.

The play and the production, directed by Paul-Douglas Michnewicz, revel in the unguarded emotions of youth. Emily views her friend in the roseate shimmer of a schoolgirl crush. Every little thing Vivian does is magic, from eating oysters on the roof of her baronial home to shoplifting Chanel No. 5 perfume. Even her disease is romanticized to a few Camille-like coughs and some scars that appear more like war paint than disfigurement.

The set, by Daniel Conway, looks like something cooked up by a girl who has read “Wuthering Heights” one too many times — a fanciful configuration of books, a shingled roof, and an attic door as magical as Alice’s portal into Wonderland. Emily cannot be objective in her recollections of Vivian and does not want to be — this was her greatest time, when she thought and felt with unequaled fire.

Miss Woolley plays the idealized Vivian with an air of amusement— as if letting the audience in on a grand cosmic joke. Her Vivian is dramatic and self-destructive, but she also lets us see the life force that makes her so magnetic to Emily. As the infatuated best friend, Miss Fritzky is greatly touching — both in her acute self-consciousness and her eagerness to kiss her nerdy persona goodbye.

This swooning depiction of teenage feelings is reminiscent of other adolescent classics, the movie “Dead Poets Society” and James Kirkwood’s novel “Good Times, Bad Times” come to mind. “3/4 of a Mass for St. Vivian” may not be as accomplished as these works, but Miss Rusch impresses with her softness, her willingness to ponder life’s big questions without the hard edge of sarcasm or affected ennui.

***1/2

TITLE: “3/4 of a Mass for St. Vivian” by Phoebe Rusch

WHERE: Theater Alliance, 1365 H St. NE

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Sept. 3.

TICKETS: $25

PHONE: 866/811-4111

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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