BERKLEY — When Berkley High School theater students bring their next production to the stage this weekend, their goal will be to not only entertain, but also to educate and inspire.
“David and Lisa: A Play in Two Acts” tells the story of two adolescents coping with mental illness and the inextricable bond that they form as they learn to trust each other. According to Theatre Director John Hopkins, one of the main reasons for choosing “David and Lisa” as BHS’ spring play was to raise awareness about mental health issues and acceptance of people who suffer from those issues.
“Being a teenager is hard enough as is, but when you add mental illness into the equation, it becomes even more challenging,” he said. “There’s such a stigma associated with mental illness, where kids are afraid to talk to people about it. We’re trying to pay respect to all those who are dealing with it by getting rid of that stigma.”
“David and Lisa” was originally released as a motion picture in 1962, winning numerous awards and earning a pair of Oscar nominations. It was later adapted for the stage based on the book “Lisa and David,” by Theodore Isaac Rubin, and the screenplay “David and Lisa,” by Eleanor Perry.
In the play, David Clemens is the only son of wealthy parents who is afraid that he will die if he is touched by others. Lisa Brandt, meanwhile, has a split personality, one of which will only speak in childish rhymes and the other of which will only communicate through writing and drawing. The story follows their progress and their setbacks during one term at the Berkeley School for the Emotionally Disabled, where they have come under the sympathetic guidance of psychiatrist Dr. Alan Swinford and his staff.
“This show has such rich characters and such a great and important message, and I really hope that comes across in our production,” Hopkins said. “It also doesn’t hurt that the school is called Berkeley, which was a happy coincidence.”
The BHS production will run from March 22-24 and features a cast of 22 students, as well as 13 understudies and about 20 crew members. The main cast includes senior Aaron Cohen as David, senior Claire Hayostek as Lisa, senior Jake Vincent as Dr. Swinford and senior Isabelle Wroblewski as Mrs. Clemens, David’s mother.
For Cohen, playing the role of someone who not only has mental illness, but is terrified of connecting emotionally with another person, has been no easy task. He pointed out that stepping into David’s shoes has required total dedication and commitment to the character from day one.
“Almost every day after school for the past few months, I’ve become this whole other person,” he said. “The challenge has been to get it to the point where it’s not Aaron becoming David, and it’s just David being David. He and Lisa both have so many issues, but they are co-dependent on each other to get to a better place. It really shows that we all need strong relationships in our lives in order to become who we aspire to be.”
Cohen and Hopkins stressed, though, that the relationship that develops between David and Lisa is not necessarily a romantic one, but rather one of trust and understanding.
“From the moment they first meet, they both have very different reactions to each other than they do to all the other kids in class,” Hopkins explained. “There’s a real connection between them. They cause changes in one another because they are willing to take risks, and they grow to really care about each other.”
Hopkins has been thoroughly pleased with how well his students have taken on such complex and challenging roles and how accurately they have been able to convey the message of the play.
“This cast has really risen to the occasion,” he said. “I always push my students not to act, but to be, and I’ve been so impressed with the incredible respect and honesty that they’ve shown these characters. I really want people to see what an amazing job our kids have done of bringing these characters to life.”
Hopkins would ultimately love for this show to have “a real impact” on audiences by inspiring a change in the way they perceive mental illness.
“I hope that people are able to take away an acceptance that mental illness affects us all, and they should reach out and help someone in their life who needs it,” he said. “I also hope that young people suffering from mental health issues will see that they are not alone, so they should not be afraid to ask for help.”
Cohen, who will be performing in his final BHS student production, believes that shows like “David and Lisa” are ushering in a bold new era for the school’s theater program. He praised Hopkins for doing “a phenomenal job” in his first year as theater director and for being unafraid to take on a play that confronts so many serious issues.
“Mental illness is very real,” he said, “and there are a lot of people out there who need help dealing with it. We want everyone who walks out of this show to feel ready to be that friend, that family member, that teacher, that mentor who can step up and help someone with mental illness.”
Tickets for “David and Lisa” are $10 for adults; $5 for students, seniors and children ages 12 and younger; and free for children ages 2 and younger. They can be purchased at the door or online at www.bedrama. brownpapertickets.com. Performances will be held at 7 p.m. from March 22-24 in the BHS auditorium. Berkley High School is located at 2325 Catalpa Drive. For more information, call (248) 837-8095 or visit www.berkleyschools.org.
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