By Wendy Rosenfield
for the Inquirer
Stargirl’s tale is familiar to U.S. teens, and not just because Jerry Spinelli’s 2000 novel rests on many, many kids’ and libraries’ bookshelves. Its themes stretch from the Salem witch trials all the way down to Mean Girls. In the story, upon which Y York’s world premiere script for People’s Light and Theatre (her fifth collaboration with the company, and second with Spinelli, after 2009’s Eggs) is loosely based, an oddball homeschooled student enrolls at an Arizona high school, challenges her new peers’ conformity with iconoclastic behavior--carrying a pet rat in a backpack, playing ukulele in the halls, dressing in costume--and is summarily shunned.
York typically uses her source material as a jumping-off point, but “Stargirl Society” members (they exist) shouldn’t be alarmed. This is less a chapter-by-chapter retelling of the book than a distillation of its message. The love story between Stargirl (Saige Hassler) and Leo Borlock (Aubie Merrylees) remains, as do alpha couple Hillary (Margaret Ivey, though in the book, she’s Hillari) and Wayne Parr (Mark St. Cyr), and the kids’ paleontologist pal, the Professor (Tom Teti). And its message is clear.
Stargirl, in a fruitless effort to blend in with her classmates, asks Leo, “What do you like?”
He answers, “I like what they like. You should like what they like, too.”
It’s a painful moment for anyone who’s ever found themselves either just outside or trapped inside a thicket of social mores, which is to say, just about everyone. It helps to see these sentiments delivered so earnestly by Hassler and Merrylees, who burst with youthful exuberance as readily as they deflate from dashed hopes. They’re sweet, funny and winning, and despite a staccato start, they, with director Samantha Bellomo’s guidance, pop out of their surroundings as if they were the only three-dimensional beings in a two-dimensional world.
This may also partly be because their supporting characters retain a cartoonish quality, archetypes-with-a-twist. Not that Stargirl fans will mind. It’s fun enough to see her brought to life, and this production is thoughtful enough to send kids back to school with some new ideas, and even grownups can agree every school could use a few of those.
Playing at: People’s Light and Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. Through Sunday, May 12. Tickets: $25 to $40. Information: 215-644-3500 or www.PeoplesLight.org.