Morse High student's play takes stage at One Act fest

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BATH — A Morse High School student’s play about a dying woman and her daughter is hitting the stage during the Regional One-Act Play competition this weekend.

Madelaine Whalen’s play, “Make Believe,” will begin at 8 p.m. Friday, March 5, at Windham High School. Whalen, a junior, tells of the final months of Helen, a sixth-grade science teacher who is suffering from ovarian cancer. Her 6-year-old daughter, Jenny, helps her die with dignity, “using her imagination and creative powers,” said Kevin O’Leary, Morse’s One-Act director as well as an English and drama teacher at the school.

“It’s a very touching story of how children are a source of not only love, but inspiration,” O’Leary said in a recent interview. “It cuts me to the core because I lost my mother, God rest her soul, to ovarian cancer in 1998. So it’s really cutting close … as I watch this play unfold.”

He said he had broken down the day before once the lights went on and he saw senior Holly Heinz, who plays Helen, enter the stage wearing a bathrobe and scarf, showing the effects of chemotherapy, “and I looked up on stage and I swear to God it was my mother, and I lost it. … I felt like I was literally looking at my life.”

Freshman Sophie Mayo plays Jenny, while sophomore Elizabeth Swanson plays her 6-year-old neighbor, Anna.

“They bring levity to the play … when the audience needs it,” O’Leary said. “It’s this wonderful dance of poignant powerful dramatic moments, interspersed with these light, tender, sweet moments.”

Ruth Shumaker, a junior, plays the adult Jenny, who has become a nurse. She breaks the “fourth wall” of theater to introduce the audience to her story, and at the end of the play, she’s helping someone else with cancer, bringing the story full circle.

Whalen said her inspiration for the story came one day when she wondered what she would do without her mother. While both her parents are alive and well, she said, she knows many people who have been impacted by cancer. Her parent’s divorce while Whalen was in elementary school, and her best friend’s help in getting her through a difficult time, also served as a creative impetus.

“Seeing my characters and my writing evolve in rehearsal is a fantastic experience,” Whalen wrote in an e-mail. “Watching each actor develop their character is fascinating. Knowing that 20+ people are devoting their time to my writing makes me feel important, and special. I honestly wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.”

This is the ninth One-Act for O’Leary, who has spearheaded the evolution of student-written pieces each year from the page to the stage. And it was Morse which hosted the first regional One-Act festival in 1932, O’Leary said.

The Maine Principals’ Association, which runs the One-Act festival, allows five minutes for the play to be both set up and torn down, 35 minutes for the performance and a five-minute grace period.

“So for all intents and purposes you get 40 minutes, and you cannot go one second over or you’re disqualified.”

As of last Thursday the play was running at 38 minutes and 20 seconds, which O’Leary wanted to trim to 33 minutes.

The nine schools at Windham this weekend are among 80 competing at nine sites in Maine. The winning Division A and B schools at each regional site will advance to the state competition two weeks later, and the top school of each division will then compete at the New England level. Morse, which is Division A, was a runner-up at the state competition in 2005 and 2006, and had the only student written plays, O’Leary said.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or

Morse High School students Holly Heinz, left, and Sophie Mayo play a mother dying of cancer and her daughter in “Make Believe,” a play written by fellow student Madelaine Whalen.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.