WEST ORANGE, NJ — Fifty-one years after the book hit shelves and 35 years after moviegoers headed to cinemas to see “The Outsiders,” West Orange High School thespians will take the stage to present the theater version of the classic teenage tale set in the 1960s. Set in Tulsa, Okla., in 1965, the story is narrated in the book and on stage by Ponyboy Curtis, a high school student and member of the “Greaser” gang, which comes into conflict with the popular and better-off members of the “Soc” gang. The WOHS production is putting a new spin on the show, with female students in some of the male roles when it opens Thursday, Nov. 1.
“An alumna came back over the summer and said she was playing Two-Bit in a production of ‘The Outsiders,’” WOHS theater arts teacher and director Wendy Mapes said in an interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Oct. 24. “And a light bulb went off in my head. I thought casting women in men’s roles could explore masculinity.”
With more girls auditioning for the play than boys, Mapes cast the actor was best for each part. Ponyboy is being played by Olivia Ridley; Dallas Winston, another traditionally male part, is being played by Erin Arnold; and WOHS’ Two-Bit Matthews is being played by Litzy Reyes-Polanco. Kai McCall is playing Randy Adderson, a member of the opposing “Soc” gang.
Not all of the men’s roles are being played by female WOHS students. Sodapop and Darry Curtis, Ponyboy’s brothers, are being played by Tyler Brooks and Joseph Nalieth, and Sebastian Chaviano is portraying Ponyboy’s best friend Johnny Cade.
At a rehearsal a week before the show opened, Mapes said she and the students are working on perfecting the second act.
“It’s been challenging, because what happens is you forget about the second act sometimes,” she said. “They’re doing a great job with it. This is perfect because the characters are their age and the themes are all pertinent with cliques and the struggles with parents.”
“The Outsiders” is traditionally read in middle school classrooms, and the district’s eighth-graders are getting a sneak peek of the show before opening night to see the story come to life.
The show features seniors who have been in previous WOHS productions as well as new players, like freshman Maria Nalieth. Playing Cherry Valance, a member of the Soc gang, Nalieth has been going to see the WOHS shows since she was in middle school and is now taking the stage with actors she has seen perform.
“I did the junior plays at Roosevelt and some other community theater,” Nalieth said in an interview with the Chronicle on Oct. 24. “These are people I’ve come to see since sixth grade, so now I get to be onstage and do a scene and learn from them.”
The actors have been doing a lot of character work to prepare for the show, which Nalieth said has been helpful for her.
“Everyone will ask each other questions about their character and that makes it easier to jump into this character that I don’t know that I relate to that much,” she said. “She’s this rich, popular Soc and that’s not my typecast — I don’t usually play that. So it’s fun to find a side I can understand.”
Because the story is set in 1965, there are cultural differences that students are learning about while working on the play. The clothes are different than what high school students wear today and the slang that teenagers use has changed in the last 50 years.
“It’s so fun to dress up in these clothes,” Nalieth said. “And to learn the words and phrases, too. ‘Ya dig, OK?’ is not something I would ever say now.”
Arnold, a senior, has been involved in the theater department throughout her time at WOHS. Playing the role of Dallas Winston is her first major role in a show, and she is excited about how the cast has been working together during the last few months of rehearsals.
“The cast has really bonded,” she said. “It’s been a lot of not just working on scenes, but working on characters. It’s been a really great process to see everyone come together because that’s something I’ve always wanted to be a part of and leave behind when I graduate.”
As a female a male role, Arnold said that not sticking to the traditional rules of casting will make a better show.
“It’s a male heavy show — there’s really only three girl parts,” she said. “But there’s so much strong female talent that you want to use. What’s great is that Ms. Mapes really just cast whoever was best for the part.”
The costumes have also helped Arnold look and feel the part.
“Dallas is a very masculine, bad boy type character,” she said. “That’s obviously not anything that I’d be. It’s fun to slip into that and wear things that I don’t have in my wardrobe.”
Reyes-Polanco is playing Two-Bit Matthews, a member of the Greaser gang and one of Ponyboy’s friends. To get into the character, she makes playlists of songs she thinks her character would like.
“I’ve always wanted to challenge myself and this is giving me that challenge,” Reyes-Polanco said in an interview with the Chronicle on Oct. 24. “I see a lot of myself in him but obviously not everything. It’s about teens and we’re teens, so we’re maturing as actors and also people.”
Mapes is directing the play, but has two student assistant directors who are learning the ropes about running a show behind the scenes. Junior Rachel Favetta and senior Aliyah Ramamand have previously only acted; “The Outsiders” is the first time in their high schools careers when they won’t be taking a curtain call in costume.
“I always had a lot of ideas when I was acting, so I thought this would be fun to do,” Ramamand said in an interview with the Chronicle on Oct. 24. “I was always trusting my intuition when I was acting, I just needed someone to bring it out and Ms. Mapes did that. It’s nice to do it as a senior; I’m glad this is my last show.”
Favetta said that she always used to dig deeper in characters when she was on stage, and working as an assistant director has given her a chance to do it more often.
“It’s something that I already loved,” she said. “Helping the actors dig deep and putting that into directing is fun.”
With the diverse cast and different genders playing nontraditional roles, Reyes-Polanco, who is a senior and president of the WOHS drama club, said the show gives audience members a chance to see themselves in the story.
“It’s an iconic piece of American literature and everyone has seen the movie, so that’s all the same,” she said. “The core message is still relevant. But we’re doing it with a very new lens, because on top of some girls playing males, how does our own race play into it? What happens when Ponyboy is black and Two-Bit is Latino? There’s such a diverse audience that it will touch base with that it maybe wouldn’t have if they can’t see themselves in it. It allows us to add fresh layers that we don’t get to see in the book.”
Performances will be held at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 1; Friday, Nov. 2; and Saturday, Nov. 3, in the West Orange High School Auditorium, 51 Conforti Ave. on the Pleasant Valley Way side of the campus. Tickets may be purchased at the door or at a discount online at wohs.booktix.com.
Photos by Amanda Valentovic