From March 23 through April 1, Maryland’s Round House Theatre presents the tenth annual The Sarah Play, named for Sarah Emily Metzger, a beloved Round House intern who was killed in a car accident during her freshman year of college, in 1999.
The Sarah Play is directed, designed, stage-managed and performed entirely by local high-school students. The play has become part of Round House’s regular programming each season, and as such is the only production of its kind, in the United States.
Past Sarah Plays include “Side Man,” “The Fantasticks,” “Cyrano” and “Dracula.” This year’s play is “The Giver,” adapted from Lois Lowry’s novel about a utopian society where fear, pain and choice don’t exist, and where a boy named Jonas starts to question the status quo.
Sarah Metzger’s father, Phil, says The Giver was among Sarah’s favorite books she read at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, which she attended before heading to the University of Michigan. She was pursuing a double major in English and theater up in Ann Arbor, before she died in January 1999, at the start of her second semester as a freshman.
“She was such an organizer, she had figured out exactly what courses she was going to take for the next 3.5 years to get both of those degrees,” Metzger says. “She completely plunged in to that in the little time she had in college.”
He says this “plunging in” was typical of Sarah, who brought an unrelenting energy and passion to everything she did – especially theater. In fact, in her senior year of high school, she produced an entire show on her own.
“She got the venue; it was a community theater up in Germantown,” her father recalls. “And she got all of the set people, the lighting, the sound. She had rehearsals in the backyard. It was just like a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland production: ‘Let’s go put on a play!’”
And it’s that same can-do attitude that’s been infusing the student-produced Sarah Play for 10 years now. It all began after Sarah died, when Metzger and his wife, Lynn, asked people to send contributions to the Round House Theatre, in Sarah’s memory.
“In fact, we had the memorial service for her at the Round House, which was then up on Bushey Drive in Wheaton,” Metzger says. “I think it sat about 240 people, and there were probably 600 people who came.”
The show must go on
Those memorial donations eventually became the Sarah Metzger Memorial Fund, which helped support the first Sarah Play: Jim Leonard, Junior’s “The Diviners.” Watching that first Sarah Play, Metzger says he had “mixed feelings.”
“This was something that Sarah would have, as they say, given her eye-teeth for the opportunity to do,” he says. “But it was very much in keeping with the spirit that she had brought to what she did. And so that was poignant and joyful and consoling all at the same time.”
And Bethesda-Chevy Chase student Jessie Klueter, who’s directing this year’s Sarah Play, describes the experience in her own words: “really awesome.”
It’s Klueter’s first time with The Sarah Play, “but it’s been kind of on my radar for a while,” she says. “Sarah actually went to my high school. And it’s really beautiful to know that something is coming out of her passing. And every year The Sarah Play grows, and more people get to do theater, and I am so grateful that this exists.”
Kari Barclay agrees. The Richard Montgomery High School student has worked on three Sarah Plays now: as an actor, then a director, now as a lighting designer. He says he loves it, thanks, in part, to the professional mentors the Round House brings on to lend a hand.
“My mentor is Chris Thompson,” he says. “She has a huge amount of experience in the field. And she’s really helping me get the technical elements, and sort of design the more conceptual elements.”
Those elements include contrasting what Barclay calls “the safe world of this utopian society” with “the more dangerous world of emotions and of the memories and the past. And the safe world is all in black and white, this blank canvas of sort of white costumes and such. And with lighting, we gradually get to transition into the land of color, which is something beautiful to see.”
For Sarah father, the whole experience is “beautiful to see” – even if it does bring about those “mixed feelings.”
“We remember again how much we miss of her, and how much she has missed of the opportunity to see her talents and capabilities flourish,” he says. “It’s now 13 years since she died in January of 1999. And to be very blunt, a part of ourselves died after that, and we have to just take joy in the memory.”
In fact, in a way, he says, The Sarah Play has become a kind of living memorial to his daughter, especially on opening night, when the Metzger family mingles with company members, past and present.
“They’re very frequently telling us both how appreciative they are of the opportunity, and of what a remarkable and often life-changing experience it is,” Metzger says. “And we really feel in those moments that Sarah’s right there, and that this is where her spirit is most at home.”
[Music by: "They Were You" by Ton Jones and Harvey Schmidt from The Fantasticks Original Cast Album]
Photos: The Sarah Play