Kenny Barrett, 17, has done something bad, really bad.
Just what Kenny did is not easy for his family to talk about. But they do have to live with it, and figure out where to head next.
That’s the starting premise of Liz Flahive’s “From Up Here,” the funny but probing play that opens Forward Theater Company’s 2014-15 season this week. A best-play nominee for the 2008 Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards, “From Up Here” touches on issues of school violence, bullying, mental health — and the families and communities who feel the impact.
“It’s very funny, it’s very real, and it shows a very relatable group of characters dealing with a situation with a lot of humor,” said Forward artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray, who is directing “From Up Here.” The play is recommended for mature teens and older.
“Kenny is going back to his first day of school after having done something very bad,” she said. “The play is somewhat about him, but it’s also about the entire community around him — his mom, his stepdad, his sister, the guidance counselor at school, a police officer, his aunts.
“You watch these people interact, and you think, ‘Yeah, I recognize that.’”
Forward is partnering with the Goodman Community Center and Boys and Girls Club of Dane County to provide tickets to the play and youth discussions with teaching artists. On Nov. 14, the theater company will present a free public symposium on youth issues hosted by the CUNA Mutual Foundation.
“I think the play opens wonderful opportunities here in the community about how we can all support each other and support the teens in our midst,” Gray said.
“The teens in my cast tell me that, yes, this feels very real to them. I think it’s incredibly important for teens to be able to see themselves on stage, and to be able recognize the people that they know in stories that relate to their lives. So I’m very much hoping that we’ll have a good (youth) turnout.”
To cast the play’s four teen roles, Gray put the word out to area high school drama departments to find actors with some stage experience. Alistair Sewell, who played the young Farnsworth in the 2011 Forward production of “The Farnsworth Invention,” plays Kenny. Middleton High School junior Joshua Biatch, West High School sophomore Sophia DeVita, and Frost White, a senior at Verona’s Exploration Academy, also have roles.
Professional actors in the cast are Jim Buske, Nicholas Harazin, Rachael Jenison, Karen Moeller and Sam White.
The six-year-old “From Up Here” script is “old” by the usual standards for Forward Theater, which tends to nab plays hot off their Broadway or off-Broadway runs.
But when the theater’s advisory committee, which helps select each season’s plays, read “From Up Here,” “everyone was unanimously in love with it,” Gray said.
“I have three kids, and the oldest just turned 13,” she said. “It’s really wonderful and terrifying for me to dive in head-first to (see) what it is to be a teenager today.”
Other Forward Theater productions this season include:
• “The Other Place,” Jan. 15-Feb. 1: American Players Theatre artistic director Brenda DeVita directs the haunting drama by Sharr White. APT veteran actress Tracy Michelle Arnold plays Juliana Smithton, a brilliant research scientist whose life is unraveling.
“It’s a really tense mystery,” said Gray. “(Juliana) narrates her story to the audience, and you have to untangle what is true and what is not in what she is telling you.”
• “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” April 9-26: The 2013 Tony Award winner for Best Play, this comedy by Christopher Durang is Forward Theater’s “big ‘get’” of the season, Gray said.
“This year it’s the most-produced play at professional companies across America.”
The story of three siblings named by their Chekhov-obsessed parents, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” “is hilarious, a straight-up comedy — and I have the most phenomenal cast of comic actors,” said Gray, who will direct. James Ridge, Sarah Day, Julie Swenson, Travis Knight, Alexandra Bonesho and Marcella Kearns make up the cast.
• “Out of the Fire: The Banned Books Monologues,” Feb. 26-28: Forward’s third biennial monologue festival matches original scripts with area actors and directors. The festival in past years has looked at love and food; this year’s theme is banned books and censorship.