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Friday, April 4, 2014

'Crash' Explores the True Meaning of Friendship

First Stage brings Jerry Spinelli’s story to life

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First Stage brings award-winning author Jerry Spinelli’s best-selling book for young adults to life in Crash. The play, a growing-up story of a teenage boy who wants nothing more than for his inattentive father to see him play football, continues through April 13.

Crash follows the lives of “Crash” Coogan and his family, which includes a younger sister, their parents and the wife’s father. The 90-minute play probes a variety of issues, from bullying and sibling rivalry to the true meaning of friendship. There’s plenty of laughter, but the play occasionally takes a serious turn into family dynamics, such as the difficult decisions faced by two working parents trying to keep a roof over their heads in a tough economy, as well as the changes that occur when a beloved, elderly grandparent comes to live with them.

As Crash, William Esty (of the “Offense Cast”) convincingly demonstrates the emotions of a boy often torn between feelings of what is right versus what may be considered “cool” by his peers. He is initially swayed by another member of the football team (Elliott Brotherhood) into mocking one of Crash’s old neighborhood friends. They find an easy target in Penn, a smaller, “nerdy” boy (Matthias Wong), who adheres to the values of his parent’s religion. As Penn, Wong shows his natural gift for comedy. He is also mature enough to realize that his stature, his ideas and the fact that he keeps a turtle for a pet can draw negative attention. But he seems to take it all in stride, which catches the attention of a fetching new girl in school (Mary Elsa Henrichs).

Crash is stung by the girl’s rebuffs, and wonders why she prefers Penn. Eventually, he learns to treat his old friend with respect, to the approval of the new girl, as well as his family. Director Mary MacDonald Kerr effectively navigates the complicated lives led by these teens.

The adult cast members are all well-known area actors. They are uniformly wonderful in their roles, which include Crash’s mother (Deborah Staples), father (Jonathan Wainwright) and Robert Spencer as the seagoing grandfather, Scooter. Spencer is a crowd-pleasing favorite because he shows a mischievous side. When Scooter suffers a stroke, Crash thinks it is partly his fault. When Crash’s sister (Claire Zempel) criticizes him for not getting Scooter a gift for his birthday, Crash comes up with a zany solution that lightens the mood during a stressful moment.

Crash, recommended for children 8 and older, continues at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Todd Wehr Theater (929 N. Water St.) through April 13. For tickets, call 414-273-7206 or visit firststage.org.