Teens star in rarely seen play of 'Rebel Without a Cause'

Few movies have had as much impact on American pop culture as Nicholas Ray's 1955 teen drama 'Rebel Without a Cause,' which comes to life as a seldom-seen stage play this weekend.

The film vividly portrayed teenage rebellion but also identified a legitimate social problem that would receive much attention in the future. The story actually began as a 1944 psychiatric case study of a teenage psychopath and a book by Dr. Robert Lindner, also called 'Rebel Without a Cause.'

Actor James Dean had hit stardom in the film of John Steinbeck's 'East of Eden,' and his troubled screen presence was a perfect fit for Jim, the star of 'Rebel.' What was to be a 'B' film in black and white began with such energy that one day into filming, it was ordered reshot in the brilliant color for which it's known.

Screenwriter Stewart Stern adapted Ray's sketch about Jim, an alienated teenager moving to a new town and a new school Ñ surely the hardest thing most kids go through. Right away, Jim not only gets into a fight with Buzz, the school's main gang leader, but he also strikes a spark with Buzz's girlfriend Judy, played by Natalie Wood, and another with Plato (Sal Mineo), a younger boy with psychological problems.

Buzz dares Jim to a 'chickie-run' car race with tragic consequences, and Plato turns out to have a death wish of his own. All of the teens are alienated, and none of the adults are able to help.

The film confirmed Dean's talent, as well as that of Wood and Mineo. Curiously, all three actors later died premature, traumatic deaths.

While the film is a cinematic landmark, the stage play Ñ with a similar script by James Fuller Ñ is relatively unknown. It opens at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center this weekend.

Kimberly Mathie coordinates the center's Arts Education and Outreach program and was looking for a play that didn't include the Holocaust when she stumbled across 'Rebel' in the Dramatic Publishing catalogue.

The play deals with issues of teenage alienation that are still relevant 50 years after the movie came out, Mathie says.

'In an age where something like Columbine (the Colorado high school shootings) can happen, it's clear it's tough being a teenager and it's always been tough,' she says. 'My goal with this production was to start conversations between teens and teens and parents and teens.'

Coincidentally, Mathie was approached by members of the Cardboard Box Theatre Company who were interested in teaching acting classes. She hired Darius Pierce, a member of the company, to direct the show. A casting call generated 40 applicants from which the 16-strong cast was chosen.

One hurdle that Pierce had to overcome was filling roles with ages ranging from 12 to 76 from a cast of actors who are 12 to 16 years old.

'Arguably, that's the largest challenge Ñ showing the conflict between generations,' Pierce says. 'But I played Lear in college among a bunch of 20-year-olds Ñ and it worked.'

Both Morgan Crawford as Jim and Natalie Stringer as Judy are 14 years old. Neither had seen the movie until they auditioned for their parts, but both are confident the material is timeless.

'If you hadn't seen the movie, you wouldn't think about it being the 1950s,' Crawford says. 'There are always going to be teenagers rebelling against authority. This shows kids you're not alone, this has happened to kids in the past, and it'll happen in the future.'

'The characters seem real; the script applies to today,' Stringer says. 'I can work with the character even though I don't have a lot of similarities or the same background Ñ it's acting.'

Pierce says Dean's shadow hangs over the story Ñ probably the reason the play isn't often performed.

'Can you do it without James Dean? You can if you're not trying to copy him. If you saw Morgan Crawford as Jim first, you'd never think of Dean in the role. He's not trying to re-create Dean's style and coolness, he's playing Jim earnestly as a teen today.'

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