Imagining the Life of an Ailing Beatles Fanatic

By Beacon Staff

When members of the Whitefish High School thespian and drama club are asked what they like most about acting, the answer is the same: the chance to try to be someone else. But, sometimes, they’re surprised by how much a character can hit home.

In the case of their current production, “John Lennon and Me,” cast members said their characters may live in a hospital and deal with some very serious issues, but many of their worries aren’t all that different from normal high school troubles. Feeling like they fit in. Making friends. First boyfriends.

Those typical preoccupations make for some humorous scenes, the cast said, in a play that has a serious – and sometimes sad – message about living life to the fullest and accepting others for who they are.

“I really like this play because, even though it’s a drama, it’s not a cry, boo-hoo fest,” freshman Jennifer Vail, who plays the main role of Star, said. “It has a lot of funny parts, and even though most kids don’t live in a hospital or deal with that, there are a lot of problems that kids go through in the play that can be related to real life.”

The club will be performing the play in the Whitefish Middle School Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 14, 15 and 16. Tickets, sold at the door, are $5 for students and $8 for adults.

“John Lennon and Me” was adapted by Cherie Bennett from her book, “Good-bye, Best Friend.” The story centers on Star, the ultimate John Lennon and Beatles fan whose dreams are thwarted by cystic fibrosis, an inherited disease that typically leads to an early death.

To cope with her fate during her long and frequent hospital stays, Star conjures up the Flunkies, imaginary teen hipsters who dance and quote John Lennon and imagines her dreaded therapy nurse as a pro-wrestler.

Then, Star has to deal with a new roommate, Courtney, a pretty cheerleader with a privileged life who couldn’t be more different than the Beatles devotee.

The group got a chance for a trial run of the production two weeks ago when they traveled to Missoula for the Montana State Thespian Festival. With only a 35-minute window to setup, perform a play, receive feedback and take down, they presented an abbreviated version of the show, using pieces from each of its three acts and narratives to fill in gaps.

The feedback was positive. Of the 23 high schools and more than 500 students participating in the event, Vail received an Outstanding Performance Award for her portrayal of Star.

“That’s an awesome accomplishment for a freshman,” director Leslie Thomas said. “The audience was very reactive to the piece as a whole, and I’m really proud of all of them.”

Senior Trevor Bennett also won the weekend’s tongue twister contest – one of the weekend’s lighter competitions – for reciting the Element Song, a singsong list of the elements of the Periodic Table.

There are 28 members in the club, about 20 of whom are involved in the “John Lennon and Me” production. Thomas said the club provides an important supplement to the theater classes available to the students at the high school by providing a chance to perform.

Acting becomes a full-time gig for many of the young actors who also participate in other shows. Several of the students performing in “John Lennon and Me” were involved in the “West Side Story” production last month, meaning they traveled from practice for one play in Whitefish to practice for the other in Kalispell almost nightly.

“It was pretty crazy; for awhile I’d go to play practice after school and not get home until 11 p.m.” sophomore Katie McGunagle, who plays Courtney in “John Lennon and Me” and was part of the chorus in West Side Story, said. “I would eat in the car and pretty much see my parents for the 10 minutes when they were driving me from place to place.”

McGunagle’s voice was showing the wear of months of practice, as she sucked on cough drops and took breaks between coughing fits. But, she and the other cast members seemed confident this play and their previous performances were worth the long hours.

“It’s just so much fun that it’s totally worth it,” she said.