BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ- High school is a confusing place for any teenager, especially when considering all the pressures students can face. Whether placed by peers, teachers, family members or by the students themselves, this pressure can be unbearable and cause some to resort to extreme lengths to cope.
On February 5, the cast of Anytown, including actors Emma Wagner, Joe Piserchio, Eileen Doan, and Akoni Steinmann, came to Governor Livingston to perform a musical about the opioid crisis to each grade. The performances, including one at the night for parents to attend, was funded through a grant from the Berkeley Heights Education Foundation.
The musical revolves around high school student and star athlete, Hope Bake, played by New Jersey high school alumnus Emma Wagner. In the play, Hope is a high school senior with incredible potential, a high GPA, and the motivation to succeed in school. With the support of her mother, Hope dreams about going to an Ivy League college.
Whilst playing in the playoff qualifying soccer game, Hope sprains her ankle. A boy, played by California native Akoni Steinmann, she has a crush on offers her an OxyContin pill to relieve the pain. Partially because of Hope’s desire for this boy to take an interest in her and her naivety of the slippery slope of addiction, she takes the drug. The effect of taking the pill is instantaneous and Hope finds herself desperate for more. She exaggerates her pain to the doctor, who prescribes a dosage. However, Hope quickly becomes dependent on the drug, showcasing the true horrors of opioid addiction.
The rest of the show depicts adolescent addiction in a deeply honest way. The storyline does not shy away from all of the gray areas and morally ambiguous decisions the characters make. Hope’s problem is revealed when her childhood best friend, Joey, played by crowd favorite Joe Piserchio, finds Hope stealing his ailing grandmother’s medicine. Joey must decide whether to tell someone and risk losing his friendship with Hope or beg Hope to find sobriety but risk her failing and losing her indefinitely. The obvious choice would be to tell an adult trained to treat addiction. However, the play shows why Joey ultimately decides to keep Hope’s secret confidential. Joey points out how difficult high school is socially and how he could be left alone and isolated if he betrayed Hope. The future is never certain, so Joey decides to let Hope’s future happen organically to maintain their friendship for the time being.
Hope’s mother, played by Kentucky native Eileen Doan, eventually learns about her daughter’s addiction. She is stunned, scared and angry. Hope begs her mother to let her continue using the drug until after her midterms are over in order to keep her school record intact. Her mother ends up offering to take Hope to purchase more opioids in a controversial scene and then gives her money in order to complete the purchase. Doan thought that an important aspect of the show is to demonstrate how scared parents are not as invincible as they seem to children, but are ordinary people who do not know how to handle every situation. Doan and Wagner also discussed how many parents sometimes allow their teens to drink and to party, and therefore enable the teens to choose dangerous paths.
Although the play revolved around a serious topic, certain parts were humorous, such as when Hope’s hallucinations would appear as her classmates and dance around her wearing masks and sparkling neon coats. However, the audience's’ laughter and reactions made it clear that they were receptive to the message of the play. Wagner had some insight, stating, “If they’re reacting that means they’re listening.” Although the crowd was loud and expressive, many students took a good message from the performance. Freshman Joyce Huang was one of them. “I think the play was really interesting. I don't know if it would actually help people get off drugs, but I think that it could make them realize the consequences.” Not only did sophomore Gretchen Probst appreciate the message, but she also enjoyed the music. “The song “Hero” was so catchy and I still sing it. I think it was a really good song.”
Anytown proves that addiction does not discriminate. In this show alone the two characters who fell into the grasps of addiction did not follow any particular stereotype. The boy of Hope’s affections is a popular football star who was unlucky and hurt his shoulder, resulting in his need for an OxyContin prescription. Hope is a Princeton-bound athlete who was so exhausted from the stress of excelling that she turned to pain relievers. Anytown is a cautionary tale perfect to all high school students since it proves that opioid addiction can target anyone.