The Drama Department at Cary-Grove High School in Cary, Illinois, recently performed the 1953 play Sabrina Fair, which tells the story of a woman caught between the male-dominated world of US commerce and a life filled with joys that carry no dollar value, such as living, making friends, or falling in love.
The title character is somewhat of a conflation of two characters in John Milton’s song, from Comus, entitled “Sabrina Fair”:
Listen where thou art sitting
Under the glassie, cool, translucent wave,
In twisted braids of Lillies knitting
The loose train of thy amber-droping hair,
Listen for dear honour’s sake,
Goddess of the silver lake,
Listen and save.
In the above excerpt, Sabrina is a mermaid and as much a damsel in distress as anyone could write about in the 1600s. But the Sabrina in Samuel A Taylor’s romantic comedy and in two movies that were based on it is in charge of her own life, making her own decisions. That tendency can make a mess of things where the captains of commerce meet to do their thing.
We hear a lot today about a shortage of women pursuing careers in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In the 1995 remake of the film, Harrison Ford plays a character who is investing in the latest and greatest flat-screen technology, and all the principals are male, with wives hosting cocktail parties and playing supporting roles.
But the problem isn’t so much convincing high school- and college-age women to choose STEM fields as it is keeping them on those paths once they get their degrees.
For example, in the US, a gap persists between men and women in STEM fields. In the UK, while there’s pretty much an equal ratio of men and women pursuing undergraduate chemistry programs, the pipeline to independent research careers is leaky. Many women stray from the path after they get their degrees, presumably because they feel under increased pressure to make commitments and choices in their careers that resemble those made by men.
But many women do strike the right balance. “I am 54 years young and have been a single parent for the last 19 years,” Chronicle Live quoted one female STEM executive as saying. “There are no barriers other than perceived ones and the difficulty of breaking into a male-dominated field.”
Which brings us back to the uninhibited Sabrina in Cary-Grove’s spring play: The only barriers to women making their own decisions are perceived ones. And both men and women find themselves wondering: Where do we live? Why do we fall in love? What’s actually important?
I wasn’t able to see a performance of the play, but with the permission of the student newspaper’s faculty adviser, I’m pleased to reprint a preview of the play at Cary-Grove, written by Alexa Jurado. In it, she touches many aspects of high school life, and her reporting shows an insight that anyone, of any gender, can find inspiring.
PERHAPS you have seen the movie Sabrina, either the 1954 version starring Audrey Hepburn, William Holden, and Humphrey Bogart, or the 1995 version with Julia Ormond, Harrison Ford, and Greg Kinnear. The story takes place in the backyard of an estate in the 1950s and is about a girl named Sabrina Fairchild, the daughter of a chauffeur to a wealthy family, the Larrabees. This year’s spring play at Cary-Grove, entitled Sabrina Fair and written by Samuel Taylor, was the basis for these films.
“It’s the story of a girl who grew up on an estate in Long Island as the daughter of their chauffeur and goes out into the world to find herself and comes back because she thinks she may be in love with one the sons of the rich family that owns the estate,” said Laura Whalen, the play’s director.
“I really like the show because, for a show written in 1953, it is unique that it would give so much agency and power to the woman. She’s the one who makes all the choices; they don’t choose for her. She’s a really interesting character—she’s feminine but very strong as a person, really knows what she wants in life. I really like that, and I think it’s somewhat progressive for the era in which the play was written,” she said.
The story opens with Maude Larrabee speaking with longtime family friend Aunt Julia. As the conversation progresses, we are introduced to the other characters, including the chauffeur called Fairchild, Linus Larrabee Sr, and sons Linus Jr and David, as well as David’s ex-wife Gretchen, who is dating Linus Jr. Then the title character, Sabrina, arrives back from a trip to France, and she is nearly unrecognizable to those who had known her.
“David and Sabrina were friends as children but sort of grew apart as they grew up,” said senior Corey Barlow, who played David Larrabee. “David got married, then divorced, and Sabrina went off to college in France. The story takes off when Sabrina comes back, a new woman, after five years, to visit her friends and family and also to find out who she loves. There is a bit of a love triangle that takes place. Sabrina shakes things up when she comes back. She sort of messes with the order of the Larrabee family.”
Mrs Whalen came to choose this show for many reasons. For one, it had always been on her list of shows to do. She had also been looking for the right person to play Sabrina, which is a difficult part, as well as the right people to play the brothers Linus and David. It is also a show that is charming and light and ends happily, which is perfect for spring.
“I have a wonderful combination of actors this year that fit it perfectly, and it showcased their abilities because it was a bit more realism than perhaps something like we did in the fall, but it was also a lot lighter and sweeter and funnier than the musical, so I thought it was a good cap to the year,” she said.
The air of the play was not the only thing that was distinct about this production. Mr Barlow explained that something that made it different was the commitment of the cast. Because the majority of the cast is planning on pursuing careers in performance, he said it made rehearsing easier because everyone took it seriously. Furthermore, the name recognition of the play made it easier for actors to explain it to others.
Of course, Sabrina Fair had its fair share of obstacles.
“One challenge I faced was remembering lines. For me, knowing lines is always a stressor because I’m a perfectionist, so if they aren’t perfect, it bothers me,” Mr Barlow said. “Another challenge was making sure to keep the energy up while in each scene. The play is mostly calm, which gave us the false security to take it slow and to have low energy. So we all worked hard to make it energized.”
The subject matter of the play was also, at times, difficult for the cast.
“That kind of realism is always a little bit harder, because it’s asking the actors to be really vulnerable on stage,” Mrs Whalen said. “They don’t have music to tell the audience how to feel. It’s not a comedy necessarily, so it’s not about getting the audience to laugh; it’s about embodying these characters … and making it feel like you’re watching something true that’s happening, especially something that’s like a romantic comedy like this. I think that can be difficult because, especially for actors in high school, they’re at a time in their life when that’s a little bit scary. And so, I think for the actors, the hardest part was probably just figuring out who these people were and how to make them feel real to the audience.”
For Mrs Whalen, the most difficult part was scheduling conflicts. Because of how busy everyone gets in the spring, she said it was hard to get all the actors together at rehearsal at any point in time. “But what’s interesting about that is that then when we get to dress rehearsals week, or run-through week, when everybody has to be there, seeing how quickly everything comes together,” she said.
With graduation nearly here, many members of the drama department will be leaving Cary-Grove, and many of which were a part of Sabrina Fair. Out of the nearly 15 actors in the cast, only about five were not seniors. Of the performers, Mrs Whalen said:
This class in particular has been a really, really strong class. People like Corey, Ella [Spoelstra], Haley [Gustafson], have all been in shows since their freshman year, which is unique, and some of them were actors who had never been in a play before, seniors who had never been in a play before, like Emma Dunn or Urvaksh [Avanthsa]. They also all like each other so much that it’s such a pleasure to work with them as a group.
It was such a wide variety of students with their experience, but they all took this very seriously and were really focused. I think many of them saw this as sort of like the culmination of what they had learned for the past three or four or two or however many years, and they got to really show that. But I’m going to miss them.
We have some wonderful juniors and some great freshmen and sophomores that are coming up, but this is a class that has been remarkable in terms of how strong they are as actors. I think the nice thing about it is that all of those underclassmen have seen them, and they see what they can do, and I think they aspire to that a little bit. So I think next year, it will be sad to not have those students back, but the juniors and the sophomores and the freshmen are stronger for having worked with them.
Overall, as Mrs Whalen said, Sabrina Fair was a great cap to the year, for both seniors and the Cary-Grove Drama Department as a whole.
“I would like to thank the Performing Arts Department here at C-G for nurturing me these past four years. It has truly been a wonderful time,” Mr Barlow said. “I know that all good things must come to an end, but I will truly miss it. I know that I will never experience any other department or company like the one we are so lucky to have here. Thank you C-G drama and choirs!”