Telling their story
Young actors create a rough but heartfelt portrayal of teen outsiders
There’s a gritty truthfulness to S. E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders that few authors writing for a young-adult audience have attained. Perhaps it’s because she was only 16 when she wrote the book, her first. Perhaps it’s because she wrote about people she knew personally in her hometown of Tulsa, Okla., during the 1960s. And perhaps it’s because she didn’t try to sugarcoat adolescence and chose as her subjects kids who, as the title suggests, don’t fit into the rest of youth culture.
It’s a gang story with a romantic twist, not unlike Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story. The two gangs are the “Greasers,” on whom Hinton focuses, and the “Socs” (pronounced SO-shes, short for “socials”). Theirs is a class divide. The Greasers are low-income, working-class kids from broken families, while the Socs have parents who are financially comfortable but emotionally distant. They fight (the operant term is “rumble”) over territory and pay off blood debts in a way suggestive of the Indian tribes that once roamed the land. Some welcome the warfare; others would rather live in peace but are afraid to say so, for fear of appearing weak.
The novel’s initial popularity was enhanced by Francis Ford Coppola’s well-received 1983 film version. There is no published stage version of the novel, however. As the director of this Blue Room Theatre production, Frank Bedene, writes in his notes, “the play is not like the movie or the book. This version is uniquely its own entity created by the cast and crew. It’s our story.”
I soon realized, watching these mostly young actors as they brought their play to life, that this was just what audiences would get if Hinton’s own characters stepped out of the novel to stage it. It’s often rough, the actors vary in their ability to inhabit their roles, and the minimalist set is functional at best. But Susan Eloise Hinton would love this production. She’d recognize instantly that this cast and crew are like her characters, creative outsiders among their peers, and that this production is indeed their story.
The two central characters are Ponyboy (played by Marcus Rutledge), a bookish 14-year-old who, since his parents died a year ago in a car crash, lives with his brothers— Sodapop (Shane Kelly) and Darry (Jason Activity)—and Johnny (Jackson Indar), a younger boy who’s deeply estranged from his parents and sleeps where he can. Both are Greasers. The story begins soon after Johnny is jumped by several Socs and beaten up.
The Greasers’ leader, Dallas (played by James Dean look-alike Garrett Miller), is a charismatic but nihilistic troublemaker. Ponyboy and Johnny are drawn to him, but they also know he’s dangerous. Meanwhile, Ponyboy must work out his troubled relationship with his brothers, especially Darry, who is his overbearing surrogate father.
Another of the central characters is Twobit (Michael Sanchez), a garrulous figure who embraces the gang life, and Cherry (Samantha Lucas), a Soc who shares Ponyboy’s love of reading and is drawn to him romantically but hesitates to cross the line.
There are several plot threads that lead to a killing in a fight, a fire in a church, a hospital death and the eventual rumble between the two gangs. Little Johnny figures in all of these, so it’s fortunate that Indar, who is only 13, carries his big bundle of lines and his character’s heavy emotions with remarkable strength and skill.
The same also can be said of Rutledge, whose Ponyboy appears in nearly every scene. And Miller, whose Dallas dominates the stage whenever he appears, is convincing as a dangerously attractive leader.
There are too many minor characters to mention here. Some are natural-born actors, others not so much. But all were eager to tell this story. Their story.