by Naomi McDougall Graham · August 15, 2014
Generation ME, with book and lyrics by Julie Soto and music by Will Finan, is a refreshing piece of theater.
As we have all been keenly reminded this week, suicide is an overwhelming thing to process for those left behind. Somehow, it feels deeply personal, as though it has been done to us; as though by their choosing not to exist they have called our own existence into question. A suicide by someone we love, even someone we know peripherally, or, in some cases, not at all, provokes in us grief, co-opting of grief, confusion, anger, numbness, denial, and pain more profound than we are often prepared to deal with.
Generation ME is a play about a teen suicide. It is a musical about teen suicide performed by teenagers. It is actually a really funny musical about teen suicide performed by teenagers. And, I’ll be damned if Soto hasn’t managed to write something that honestly captures the whole pallette of complex messiness that attends the aftermath of a suicide.
The play opens introducing us to the characters of a high school. We recognize the types instantly from both our own high school experiences and high school pop culture trope, but there’s a layer to both the writing and performances that gives these teens more texture, depth, and nuance than we have come to expect. At the end of the opening number, the audience and other characters learn that one of their number, Milo, has committed suicide.
The rest of the play explores both the fallout among the remaining students, as they try to cope with and understand Milo’s death, and, through a series of flashbacks, explores the time leading up to Milo’s decision. The amount of nuance that Soto gets at here is truly impressive. A geeky goth kid who only knew Milo in life as the guy who mercilessly picked on him tries to work out what that means he should feel about Milo’s death. Various characters try to calculate how their actions may have propelled Milo towards his decision; a question the audience also begins to ask themselves as the flashbacks lead us to Milo’s moment of despair.
It is commendable that Soto does not fall prey to trying to give us answers to these questions. As we arrive at the end, there are quiet messages about the need to take the time to understand other people, the need to respond when people ask for help, the need to ask for that help; but she doesn’t pin Milo’s death on anything or anyone, nor does she bang us over the head with platitudes. Leaving the unanswerable unanswered, all Soto leaves us with is the grief and profound confusion of suicide a little more fully explored. Oh, and did I mention? It’s also really funny.
The piece is not flawless. It is uneven at times and, at 2 hours and 45 minutes, it can stand to be cut down considerably. But what this play gets right is eminently more important than what it gets wrong.
I would be remiss not to note that this teenage cast is dripping with talent. They’ve got it coming out their ears. Particular standout performances include Kennedy Slocum as the controlling queen bee of the school, Madison Judd as the social pariah, and Liam O’Donnell as the troubled Milo. Marcus Wells and Caroline Coyle go for the jugular with their comedic roles, stealing scenes left right and center. But, truly, the whole cast is terrific.
The program “Author’s Note” explains that Soto has produced teen theater for ten years and this is evident in the way she slips so authentically into the teenage psyche. What is most remarkable, perhaps, is that she does so in a way that speaks straight to the teenagers in the room, without condescension, while also striking such honest chords as to resonate with those of us who have long left high school behind. For the honesty and nuance that it adds to a difficult conversation Generation ME is an important play. I hope we all leave the theater with a little more understanding and wanting to be a little kinder.