Young Playwrights Festival offers frank glimpses of adolescent life

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Kristen Alesia (on couch) is Lizzy and Meagan Dilworth is Sharmneena in the Young Playwrights Festival production of Abigail Henkins’ “Decision Day.” | Emily Schwartz

Pegasus Theatre’s Young Playwrights Festival has been in operation for 31 years, along the way capturing the shifting zeitgeist of adolescent life.

Under the program, professional theater artists collaborate with high school teachers and students throughout Chicago to generate interest in live theater and the tricky art of playwriting. Student entries are winnowed, with four plays selected for full professional productions (with each winning writer awarded $500), six named finalists (and given $100 each) and 10 receiving honorable mention.

YOUNG PLAYWRIGHTS FESTIVAL Recommended When: Through Jan. 28 Where: Pegasus Theatre Chicago at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Tickets: $30 Info: Run time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, with one intermission

The subjects dealt with by the 2017 winners are wide-ranging. What’s particularly notable about the works are the creative ways — sometimes feverish, sometimes comic — in which each has been envisioned.

In “Decision Day,” Abigail Henkin of Whitney M. Young Magnet School winningly captures the agony and ecstasy of the college admissions process with a sophisticated mix of anguish and whimsy.

Alya (Gloria Petrelli) is interrogated by Patrick (Hunter Prince) in the Young Playwrights Festival production of Mairi Glynn’s “Monster.” | Emily Schwartz

Alya (Gloria Petrelli) is interrogated by Patrick (Hunter Prince) in the Young Playwrights Festival production of Mairi Glynn’s “Monster.” | Emily Schwartz

At the play’s center is Lizzy (Kristen Alesia), a super-achiever who has applied to three schools, each of which sends her a perfectly embodied recruiter in the form of a “suitor.”

From a prestigious Ivy League campus comes the perfectly snooty WASP, Hyps (David Flack), whom Lizzy finds repellent, even if her single mom (Amy Johnson), a poorly paid do-gooder lawyer, sees him as the ideal.

Lizzy’s fervently desired school of first choice comes in the form of McDreamy (Peter Surma), a blonde boy toy she hopes will reward her with a full scholarship.

And from her home university comes State (Hunter Price), in hot pursuit of Lizzy’s high test scores to bolster his school’s ranking.

Offering Lizzy advice and a few real-life lessons is her best friend, Sharmeena (Meagan Dilwirth), a Muslim classmate who wears a hijab.

Under the expert direction of Jerrell L. Henderson, Favela’s sharp, authentic writing is ideally matched by the cast of six actors.

“Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” written by Maday Favela of Lane Tech College Prep) and strongly performed under the direction of Emmi Hilger, is a disturbing, all-too-real portrait of a high school student suffering from serious bouts of depression and self-doubt.

Ingeniously imagined as a battle of wills, it homes in on Lexa (Gloria Petrelli), who is continually trying to fend off her dangerously powerful alter ego, the aptly named Leviathan (Kristen Alesia), who relentlessly tries to undermine her confidence, even her will to live. A devoted friend, Juno (Dilworth), works to help Lexa out of her many crises.

“Monster,” by Mari Glynn from Von Steuben High School, is the most feverishly political play on the bill. Set in an interrogation room at a Baltimore police station in the immediate wake of a hugely damaging terrorist attack, it focuses on the plight of Alya (Petrelli), an innocent suspect whose Muslim heritage has her marked as the possible perpetrator.

Questioning her in a way that suggests she is guilty long before she can prove her innocence is the young detective Patrick (Price). Rabidly goading him on from a viewing booth behind a two-way mirror is veteran officer Arlene (Amy Johnson), whose daughter and granddaughter are among the victims of the attack, and Richard (Surma), who ultimately sees how wrong the proceedings have been.

The all-important key to Glynn’s play is the way in which Alya finally comes to terms in the most humane way with the prejudice and hate that wrongly branded her a “monster.” Until then, the play, directed by Ilesa Duncan, the producing artistic director of Pegasus, is performed at a somewhat unvarying high pitch.

It is the theme of peer pressure and change that drives “Pencils & Pens,” the zanily imagined comic tale of two high school friends in the form of writing implements. Written by Aaron Powdermaker of Lane Tech and directed by Duncan, it introduces us to Marshal the pencil (Surma) and Perry the pen (Flack). The latter is determined to leave his classroom desk and move on to better things, perhaps by dropping himself into a female student’s backpack. Powdermaker has come up with the evening’s funniest line — about a breakup that results from someone’s girlfriend being “caught sharpening another pencil.” You really have to be there to fully appreciate it.

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