Playwrights: Myka Buck, Brian Hayes and Keauna Pierce. At: Pegasus Theatre Chicago at Chicago
Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave. Tickets: 773-878-8864 or www.pegasustheatrechicago.org; $18-$30
Runs through Jan. 23
You might wonder about the winners of youth playwriting competitions. Do the victors truly represent the best of young writers, or are the judging committee selections more reflective of what adults think that students should be writing about?
This question comes to mind watching Pegasus Theatre Chicago's 29th Annual Young Playwrights Festival. Three short plays were selected for production from 500 submissions by Chicago Public Schools students writing around the 2015 theme of "expectations."
Myka Buck of Kenwood Academy took her inspiration from a friend in her school's gay-straight alliance for her dramatically underdeveloped Our Little Secret. It focuses on a high school senior nicknamed Tommy ( Danielle Rennalls ) who weighs whether or not to come out as a lesbian to her religious mother, Tracey ( Shadana Patterson ).
As with any coming-out story, the unknown parental response causes a lot of insecurity. But Buck tips her hand toward a happy outcome by featuring Tommy's supportive lesbian friend named Chrissie ( Brenann Stacker ) who is already accepted by Tracey. Tommy also gets support for her relationship with Onya ( Erica Pezza ) from her incarcerated father ( Chris Cinereski ).
The subject matter of Our Little Secret might be brave for a high school student, but Buck's script doesn't mine the possible high drama of the situation. The actors under the direction of Lavinia Jadhwani also don't rise to the occasion to flesh out the characters' conflicted feelings.
Much more successful is The Adventures of FeRB by Brian Hayes of Taft High School, which pokes fun at high school cliques of goths, nerds and B-boy dancers. Named after elements on the periodic table, a scientifically minded transfer student called FeRB ( a sunny Chris Acevedo ) tries to find a group to fit into, only to be repeatedly thwarted by the omnipresent Bradley ( a sly Eric G. Walter, who is also, oddly, on crutches ).
Director Jason Fleece finds the perfect satiric tone plus a speedy wackiness to bring Hayes' comic tale to life. You can also see how the cast including Stacker, Pezza and Will Kiley all clearly relish playing such cartoonish teenager types.
The final winning play, A Cup of Souls and One Grim Reaper, Please by Keauna Pierce of Lane Tech High School, feels like a throwback to last year's competition theme of "something wicked interferes." Pierce's play is about a newly appointed grim reaper ( Cinereski ) who botches his first soul reclamation, much to the dissatisfaction of the Devil ( Kiley ) and his giggly minions.
It's an interesting premise which allows director Ilesa Duncan to produce some interesting staging ideas. But ultimately Pierce's play feels a tad undercooked with a far-too-easy solution.
This year's selections for the Young Playwrights Festival sometimes made you question whether you were seeing the best of the best. But as with any artistic competition, it's all truly subjective.