SPRINGFIELD - At first glance, you might wonder how the work of S.E. Hinton could possibly connect with today’s teens.
Something of a trailblazer in the 1960s, Hinton was barely out of high school when she sold “The Outsiders,” a strikingly honest look at high school life and gang rivalries that her publishers feared would be overlooked if critics knew it was written by a woman (the initials stand for Susan Eloise).
Instead, the novel became a popular hit, and Hinton followed it up over the next decade with more heartfelt tales of navigating the road to maturity in sometimes hostile circumstances: “Rumble Fish,” “That Was Then, This Is Now” and “Tex.” Her work enjoyed a second wave of success when the books were adapted as films in the early 1980s.
But now, only a few weeks shy of the 50th anniversary of its publication, can “The Outsiders” be appreciated as more than a period piece? Or does it seem as laughably corny as the beach party flicks its characters sneak into the drive-in to see?
Thanks to sincere performances, sharp staging and a swiftly-paced script by Christopher Sergel, What A Do Theatre’s production of “The Outsiders” brings the timeless themes in Hinton’s story to the forefront. It’s made abundantly clear that even though teenage terminology, fashions and attitudes change over the decades, there will always be cliques of privileged kids and social outcasts, hard-luck cases and wise-beyond-their-years dreamers whose differences will forever breed difficulties, name-calling and occasionally even violence.
Set in the early 1960s Tulsa, “The Outsiders” pits the snappily-dressed, well-heeled Socs (as in “socialites”) against the Greasers, the rough-and-tumble types from the proverbial “wrong side of the tracks.”
Although their tones are wildly dissimilar, “The Outsiders” is sometimes reminiscent of Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic strip in the way adults barely exist at all. Aside from fleeting appearances by a teacher, a doctor and a couple of nurses, “The Outsiders” is populated entirely by people who are probably several years shy of drinking age. Parents and police officers are discussed (never in particularly flattering terms), but not portrayed.
We see the clash through the eyes of Pony Boy Curtis (the charismatic and engaging Nick Wheeler), who is open-minded enough to appreciate Robert Frost and “Gone With the Wind,” yet tough enough to stand up for his bullied buddies.
Having lost both their mother and father, Pony Boy and his older brothers, Sodapop (sensitively played by Derek Whitesell) and Darry (Mike VanVleet, solidly conveying the uneasiness of being forced to be an authority figure before you’re ready), make due for themselves and sometimes act as moral compasses for their troubled friends, such as the often-unstable Dallas (played with the right amount of jittery angst by Christian Perez) and the achingly vulnerable Johnny (Hunter King, also very good).
It’s Johnny who inadvertently escalates the conflict between the Greasers and the Socs during a particularly tense night, leading to ferocious fighting and even a bit of espionage as the fiery Soc beauty Cherry Valence (the magnetic Averi Beck, who brings a crackling edginess to the role) crosses class lines to give inside information to the Greasers.
Director Randy Wolfe plunges us into the environment before an actor even sets foot upon the stage, as the atmospheric opening music segues from Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent” into bits of dialogue from James Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause.”
Wolfe also makes terrific use of silhouettes, as the characters occasionally vanish behind a stage-wide scrim in which backlighting transforms them into stark shadows, a reminder that when we can’t see the preppy clothes of a Soc or the unwashed face of a Greaser, the distinctions between them disappear. The scrim is also excitingly utilized during a pivotal scene involving a burning building, effectively executed by lighting designer Samantha Snow.
While there are flashes of humor in Sergel’s script, thankfully he does not overload it with pop-culture references or cheap jokes about outdated slang. He sticks closely to Hinton’s plot, packing all the major events into a brisk 100-minute show that, remarkably, does not seem like he’s giving us a CliffsNotes version of the book. True, “The Outsiders” unfolds in a world without Snapchatting, Instagramming or Facebooking, yet its observations about the tricky business of growing up still seem relevant, resonant and even touching.
What A Do Theatre
4071 W. Dickman Rd., Springfield
whatado.org, (269) 282-1953
Feb. 16-18, 24-26