Most parents would ache to think their kids don’t fit in at school. Kenny, the central figure in the timely and nuanced — if not completely satisfying — Fresno City College production of “From Up Here” certainly seems a candidate for parental concern. Ostracized by his peers, with only his deeply sardonic sister to support him, he is one of those troubled kids for whom high school is something to endure.
Kenny, played by a standout Gabe Griffith, is starting his senior year after a long suspension. Through oblique references, we learn that this troubled character was involved on school grounds in an act of violence — or at least threatened violence. (I feel that when I wrote my advance story about the play, without having yet seen it, that I perhaps unknowingly revealed too much about the plot, or was at least too explicit about Kenny’s transgression, in light of the nuance of the script.) He’s being allowed to return to school, but one of the requirements for his return is to make an apology speech in front of the student body.
Thus, a boy who was on the periphery before — treated as invisible by some, scornfully by others — has become a school celebrity, but known for all the wrong reasons.
As the play opens on the first day of school, Kenny’s family is swept up in the all-too-familiar rush of trying to get the household out the door. Kenny and his sister, Lauren (Olivia Stemler), trade cynical quips as their mother races around looking for her car keys. Grace’s new husband, Daniel (a nicely played James Knudsen), has been hoping to bond with his stepchildren — he even makes their lunches — but it’s rough going.
Adding to the chaos is a surprise visit from Grace’s nomadic sister, who has just finished a stint in the Peace Corps. Kenny is thrilled to see his beloved aunt, with whom he’s been keeping up an encouraging correspondence, but his mother is nonplussed.
One compelling facet of Liz Flahive’s contemporary drama/comedy is that it gets into the heads of parents as well as kids. Told in a slick, breezy style that suggests a highly literate sitcom, the narrative gives us the well-meaning, slightly frazzled, not exactly heroic Grace (Diane Fidalgo), Kenny’s mother.
Grace is trying to keep things together, but it’s tough when your son is a social outcast and your daughter a brash, hip, know-it-all. In an ideal world, Grace would lavish love upon her troubled son but not smother him, helping him to figure out how to better navigate a world made much more complicated by his notoriety. Instead, she alternates between domestic hovering and a curious lack of parental empathy. (To treat this particular morning as just another rush to the car completely ignores how agonizing it must be for her son.) She’s deeply flawed, and in a move that makes this play much more than a teen-angst piece, it’s Grace’s unraveling that fuels the narrative.
Griffith is particularly strong as Kenny. With arms crossed and a subdued posture, he paints the picture of a youth who just wants to blend in. In addition, Griffith never falls into the trap that befalls several of the cast members: speaking far too quickly, making their lines sound recited rather than coming from the moment.
That tendency is one factor that mars an otherwise interesting performance from Stemler as Kenny’s sister. Only when she has a bonding moment with her brother in the school cafeteria does Stemler get past a surface-level brashness. As the flighty aunt, Samantha Rodriguez has some uneven moments as well in terms of rushing her lines.
As Grace, Fidalgo struggles a little with her conflicted, scattered character, but she does find an emotional resonance in her material in the second act, especially when she has a mini-crisis of her own. (Like mother, like son?)
In supporting roles, Krystal Brock is impressive as a student do-gooder, and Will Jorge anchors a strong scene as a guidance counselor.
Janine Christl’s fluid direction keeps the pace moving, and Christopher R. Boltz’s scenic and lighting design admirably deals with a large number of settings. I’m not sure this play works as well on the larger City College theater stage as it would have in the smaller black-box space, considering the intimacy of the material, but the production design works.
I also have mixed feelings about Christl’s decision to add an acting ensemble to the production. The six members of the ensemble fill out “crowd” scenes — in the lunchroom and at a school dance, for example. They’re more a distraction than anything else. This play has a “small” feel, and simply adding people on stage seems to me to put things out of whack.
Still, “From Up Here” raises interesting issues, from bullying to blended families, and does it in a textured, non-dogmatic way. In that sense, it’s like climbing a mountain and getting a good view of what’s below.