Teen cast explores gang culture in drama

PLAY REVIEW /// ‘The Outsiders’

ROUGH STREETS—From left, Darry (Vince Shnaider), Ponyboy (Micah Meyers) and Sodapop (Tate Downing) are orphaned brothers who learn to survive by joining a street gang. Courtesy of Andy Meyers

ROUGH STREETS—From left, Darry (Vince Shnaider), Ponyboy (Micah Meyers) and Sodapop (Tate Downing) are orphaned brothers who learn to survive by joining a street gang. Courtesy of Andy Meyers

When 15-year-old Micah Meyers told friends that he wanted to direct and act in a version of Christopher Sergel’s “The Outsiders,” nobody believed he was serious. The Westlake High School sophomore, however, was not deterred, even when the school rejected his proposal to produce the play on campus.

Determined to see his dream come to fruition, Meyers approached Scott Buchanan of the Hillcrest Center for the Arts and Buchanan made the venue’s black box theater available for a three-day run of the play.

With no budget and a cast consisting solely of students from Thousand Oaks, Newbury Park, Westlake, Oak Park, Agoura and Grace Brethren high schools, Meyers’ company, True Hazel Productions, put on an impressive production April 6 to 8.

Meyers is no stranger to the stage. At 9, he starred as Charlie in Young Artists Ensemble’s production of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and later acted in other shows, including “Bye, Bye Birdie” and “Alice in Wonderland.”

What attracted him to “The Outsiders,” a dramatic play about two warring teen gangs in rural Oklahoma, was its message about the need for teens to fit into high school society and how they deal with the ensuing stress.

“Our society, as a whole, still struggles with accepting that everyone is equal, no matter their background,” Meyers said in his program notes.

The rival Greasers and Socs (pronounced “so-shiz,” short for “Socials”) are two gangs separated not by ethnic backgrounds but by economic status. The Socs are children of well-heeled families while the Greasers, who the Socs perpetually torment, are products of broken homes, with parents either dead, divorced or not interested enough in their children’s welfare to set limits on their behavior.

Sergel based his play on S.E. Hinton’s 1967 novel, published when Hinton, whose real first name is Susan, was just 16. The book was made into a successful motion picture in 1983, and Sergel introduced his adaptation in 1990.

In the production at Hillcrest, Meyers played the main character, Ponyboy, a Greaser who lives at home with his two older brothers. The boys’ parents are dead, the victims of a car accident.

Ponyboy is a sensitive 14-year-old who loves sunsets, poetry and literature. But he’s also anxious to please his brothers, so he joins the gang. His best friend, Johnny, has been verbally and physically abused by his parents, severely beaten by the Socs and he now views the Greasers as his only true family. When Ponyboy is attacked by an arrogant Soc named Bob, Johnny comes to his defense and stabs Bob to death. Ponyboy and Johnny hide out in a church, but change from fugitives to heroes when a fire starts in the church and they have to rescue children trapped inside.

“The Outsiders” shows teens in gangs as real people, not one-dimensional stereotypes as in “West Side Story.” While Johnny wishes to find a place where Greasers and Socs can “just be people,” Cherry, a Soc, tells Ponyboy, “We’re not all like that.”

Eleventh-grader Jeremy Orriss is impressive as Dallas, a hardened Greaser who grew up on the streets of New York. Tate Downing and Vincent Shnaider play Ponyboy’s brothers and surrogate father figures, Sodapop and Darry, while Jesse Sweeterman is effective as the fragile, frightened Johnny. Madison Wechsler is sympathetic as Cherry, the reluctant Soc who befriends Ponyboy.

The actors all performed admirably, despite having little in the way of set pieces or props.

Hard-hitting and relevant, “The Outsiders” has been banned in some communities for its frankness and violence, but the play deals with its subject matter in a mature, responsible way without profanity or exploitation and is a valuable teaching tool for high school actors.