BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - When the Governor Livingston Hilltop Players took on the task of performing the fall play The Incomplete Life and Random Death of Molly Denholtz, they had to be prepared to take on some weighty and controversial topics. The play, which is characterized as a dramedy written by actor and writer Ian McWethy, focuses on a high school’s reaction to a student's tragic death.
Through a series of vignettes the characters explore topics relating to title character Molly Denholtz’s death in a car accident. The show has some comedic elements but more strongly focuses on deeper issues such as suicide, bullying, sexuality, and depression.
Considering the cast had a varying degree of experience in dealing with death in their personal lives, they had to find new ways to bring their characters to life in the most respectful and authentic way possible.
Olivia Mastria, who played Skylar, a student who found a book Molly had written in shortly before her death, said, “Playing a high school student is pretty easy because that's who I am. The hard part about it was digging deeper into the characters reactions and feeling towards the death.”
All the scenes focus on the students’ relationships with Molly and their reactions to her death. With her funeral quickly approaching, students go through their school week with the anticipation of what will happen at the funeral.
Like in the real world, many of the students go through their own grieving process and some created falsified fantasies to help them grieve. Erin, played by Maycee Campano, who is chosen to give the eulogy, faces the difficult process of creating a speech when she really didn’t know Molly.
On the other hand, Paige, played by Andrea Cifelli, Molly’s best friend, doesn’t understand why she wasn’t chosen to give the eulogy and reacts passive aggressively. Other students in the play tackle the rumors surrounding Molly’s death and their relationships, or lack thereof, with the deceased.
As this topic was new for the Hilltop Players, Joseph Elefante, director and choir teacher, top priority was to ensure the cast had a safe environment to take on these roles. “It is very different from anything we’ve done in my six years as director,” he said. “It was nice to do something with themes students could relate to.”
The cast and others involved with the production were aware of the effect the play would have on the audience, too. Stage Manager Danielle Yablonovskiy, along with the guidance staff, ran a workshop called “Whispers Inside These Walls” for anyone interested in discussing the components of the show.
The workshop opened a platform for the cast and students to discuss their feelings on the topics. Cast members revealed their experiences and allowed the audience to provide feedback and ask questions. Yablonovskiy said, “I think this play is really important to share because there is a big stigma about talking about these things. To be able to present something like this so openly is really important for the community.”
Yablonovskiy also added that the most beautiful thing to her was seeing each actor transform into their roles on stage. Elefante agreed noting, “My happiest moments were when I noticed the students having moments of self discovery and finding ways to relate themselves in any way to the characters that they were portraying.”
Audience members were also pleased with the show. Sophomore Olivia Gorny said, “I thought that it did a really good job at depicting the complexity of people and how only certain people see certain sides of a person, and how different those sides can be.”
Though some may have been skeptical of the themes portrayed on stage, the cast and crew worked to ensure their performance accurately represented their roles and emotions on such hard topics.