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TOY's powerful 'Outsiders' is poignant commentary for our time

At a time when we are collectively concerned with social distancing, a story focused on a divided society feels especially poignant. Admirably directed by Chris Kelly, Theatre of Youth’s scintillating production of “The Outsiders” offers a powerful reason for braving the outside world for the community rewards that the arts bring us.

This play is based on Christopher Sergel’s adaptation of S. E. Hinton’s 1967 novel. With an excellent cast and outstanding technical production, Kelly brings Hinton’s popular coming-of-age plot to vivid life.

“The Outsiders” tells the tale of a gang of poor, working-class kids in 1960s Oklahoma. Known as “Greasers,” this tight-knit group is engaged in a fierce, territorial rivalry with a gang of rich kids called “Socs” (short for “Socials”).

With the lead character Ponyboy Curtis regularly breaking the fourth wall and narrating directly to us, we see the story through the lens of the Greasers. A sensitive youth who excels in school and is passionate about literature and movies, Ponyboy lives to tell the tale of disadvantaged youth.

Peter Raimondo compellingly portrays Ponyboy’s infectious fascination with the world around him. Through this bright-eyed Greaser’s eyes, we feel the pain of poor folk who feel trapped by difficult circumstances. Ponyboy’s willingness to speak to those on the other side, along with his passion for such literary luminaries as Charles Dickens and Jack London, offers hope for all who know him.

Kelly makes excellent use of production elements in portraying the Greasers’ dark, dreary world. I was especially impressed by moments where the gang breaches the boundary of the stage, delivering often ardent lines while sharing space with the audience.

The set, designed by Kenneth Shaw, impressively portrays post-industrial bleakness. Using sheets of corrugated steel as a curtain, Shaw makes the background shimmer, both with the rustiness of urban decay and the glimmer of still-hopeful youth.

Chester Popiolkowski’s sound design is first-rate. Whether it is with subtle guitar music accentuating heart-to-heart conversations, or with cacophonous music intensifying an already harrowing fight scene, Popiolkowski’s sonic atmosphere makes the youths’ struggle feel significant.

John Rickus’ lighting design is equally impressive. With subtle flashes, Rickus generates the terrifying image of a nocturnal police chase and a blazing church fire. Rickus’ use of a deep black background conveys the timeless depth of Ponyboy’s insights, both when he discusses his common humanity with a Soc like Cherry (played with both pep and conviction by Brittany Bassett), and when his recitation of Robert Frost’s poetry leads Johnny (Zachary Bellus) to marvel at his inspiring appreciation for life.

Bellus offers an excellent, heartfelt performance as the tortured Johnny, whose awkward posture shows how much he has been traumatized by gangland violence and by his abusive, uncaring father. In our age of social distancing, seeing Johnny and Ponyboy embrace and comfort each other feels especially touching.

Jackson Digiacomo is superb as Bob, a viscerally hostile alcoholic. Other fine performances include Adam Rath as the intense and excitable Darry, who looks after his orphaned younger brothers; Preston Williams’s charming, comic turn as the witty Two-Bit; and Christine Seshie’s role as Sandy, who regretfully abandons the jovial, but unlucky Sodapop (played with verve by Brendan Didio).

The standout performance was Patrick Cameron’s energetic turn as Dallas Winston. Convincingly conveying the bluster and aggressiveness of wayward youth, Cameron allows his Dallas to show true desperation in the face of Johnny’s death. Dallas’ sorrowful speech about selfishness as a strategy for surviving in a dangerous world offers heart-wrenching social commentary.

With some stark depictions of violence, this performance is aimed for those ages 12 and older.


"The Outsiders"

4 stars (out of 4)

Through April 5 at Theatre of Youth (203 Allen St.). Tickets are $15 to $28 (box office, website).

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