Remember those class plays everyone had to perform in elementary school? We fought over the best parts, practiced our lines at the front of the classroom, bundled up in itchy costumes, and finally, got to show off in front of our families. Proud parents, grandparents, and bored siblings packed into gym auditoriums to watch us fumble through plays about inspirational, uplifting topics.
The UTM Drama Club resurrected this experience in their latest production. There’s just one catch: this play doesn’t have a happy ending.
The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide drops us in the aftermath of nine-year-old Johnny’s suicide. Before he shot himself, Johnny wrote a play about his experience with love and bullying. In the Drama Club’s performance, the fourth-graders act out the unnamed script in memorial of their dead classmate. They adopt the roles of themselves and Johnny to depict this semi-autobiographical tale.
The production follows a frame narrative structure. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a frame narrative is essentially a story within a story—or in this case, a play within a play. When I entered the MiST Theatre, the cast was already performing on stage. Although the play hadn’t formally started, the performers had already assumed their roles as fourth-grade students. They teased each other, played hopscotch, and spoke with juvenile dialogue. This pre-play performance helped mark the transition between the Drama Club’s production and the fourth-graders’ production of Johnny’s play.
When the play officially started, an unnamed student (Ben Caldwell) walked to the front of the stage and silenced his peers. He addressed the audience as if they were the audience at his elementary school, not the audience in the MiST Theatre. He introduced himself as a friend of Johnny’s and tried to offer his condolences, but he couldn’t find the right words. The “fourth-graders” then lined up at the front of the stage and fumbled through the Pledge of Allegiance before they commenced their performance of Johnny’s play.
The play offers a glimpse into the troubled and inexperienced mind of a suicidal nine-year-old. It portrays Johnny’s apparent motivation for suicide, starring the unnamed student. The play begins with a cute interaction between Johnny and Rachel (Rebecca MacDonald), who are “boyfriend-girlfriend.” However, Rachel soon reveals her problems with body image. Her insecurities lead her to break up with Johnny. Following the breakup, Mike Rice (Jacobe Rutigliano), the school bully, assaults Johnny for talking to his girlfriend, Sally (Reid Martin). Johnny’s innocence is heartbreaking; he only has good intentions, but he’s constantly antagonized for them.
Problems arise from the play’s love triangle, or rather, love hexagon: Johnny likes Rachel, Sally likes Johnny, and Mike Rice likes Sally. And then there’s the hall monitor, Lucy Law (Alexia Vassos), who also likes Johnny and flirts with him at every opportunity. In one semi-comical, semi-upsetting scene, Lucy invites Johnny to be her lunch buddy. Johnny politely declines, as he’s still recovering from his beating. Lucy, totally oblivious to Johnny’s pain, insists that he join her for lunch. Her pleas are friendly and innocent—Vassos does a nice job depicting a childlike persistence. But Johnny continues to refuse, claiming he needs time alone.
The story confronts Johnny’s emotional journey. He must endure Mike Rice’s threats, Sally’s manipulative and unwanted advances, and Rachel’s depressive tendencies. The play culminates with Johnny’s attempt at revenge—a plan that goes horribly wrong. The story builds towards Johnny’s inevitable suicide, which appears in the final scene.
I was a little skeptical when Johnny’s play started, mostly because the dialogue seemed atypical for a group of nine-year-olds. For example, Rachel often spoke with prophetic language, displaying unusual wisdom for a girl her age. And before Mike Rice assaults Johnny, he delves into an existential monologue, which seemed highly unrealistic for a nine-year-old bully. It took me a minute to remember the students were performing dialogue that Johnny wrote. When the “fourth-graders” interacted outside Johnny’s script, they sounded more natural and age-appropriate. This realization (albeit, an obvious one) pulled my attention towards the acting abilities of the cast. They simultaneously acted as fourth-graders and fourth-graders performing in a play, creating two different layers to their characters. The cast deliberately acted poorly in Johnny’s play to demonstrate the acting capacity of a nine-year-old.
I absolutely loved the execution of The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide, especially how the actors never broke character—they broke their characters’ characters, but never their roles as children. About halfway through the play, the unnamed student came to the front of the stage and announced a brief intermission. He mentioned that someone’s mom brought sweets (Welch’s fruit snacks), which Vassos actually passed around to audience members, still in character. During the “intermission,” the cast resumed their mingling on stage.
The production offered a unique perspective on child suicide, to say the least. Johnny’s script betrays the mechanics of his depressed and tormented mind, evident in the gruesome final scene. The unnamed student’s blatant grief at the end of the play emphasizes the morbidity of a nine-year-old committing suicide. Caldwell stood at the front of the stage with blood dripping down his face. He thanked the audience for coming in a shaky voice, still performing as the unnamed student. When the lights brightened, the students continued to mingle, as they did at the start of the play. The boy curled up and cried, while Rachel rubbed his back.
The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide didn’t end with music, dimmed lights, bows, or clapping. I was serious when I said the cast never broke character. I honestly wasn’t sure if the play was done or not until a member of the Drama Club stood up in the audience and announced that it was over—I clearly wasn’t the only one who felt confused. I left the theatre as the cast continued to interact on stage, something I’ve never experienced before at a play. This anti-climactic ending provided an ideal closure for such a bleak, desolate story. The conclusion was haunting and realistic, reminding us that we don’t always get a happy ending.
The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide ran in the MiST Theatre from March 9 to 11.