NRHS wins big on stage

Published 10:26 pm Saturday, February 10, 2018

By Alex Perry

Special to Windsor Weekly

Nansemond River High School students told a harrowing true story to win big this past weekend.

The school’s competition theater team placed first in the Virginia High School League 5-A Sectionals competition held at Gloucester High School on Friday. The performance received superior ratings from every judge.

“It was a really big win for them,” said Dr. Joleen Neighbours, NRHS theater director and Suffolk Public Schools fine arts facilitator. She is from Windsor, and has family there as well.

Sophomore Emma Cox and seniors Madelyn Alspaugh, Mackenzie Sheppard and Laura Brooks won outstanding actor for their respective performances. Sheppard and Cox tied for first place for all performances.

“It’s a good feeling to have them call out your name,” Alspaugh said. “It’s one of the best feelings in the world.”

Neighbours co-directed “The Amish Project” with student directors Colin Lowery and Felicia Josey. Originally written by Jessica Dickey, the play recounts the 2006 shooting at the West Nickel Mines School, an Amish one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pa.

Gunman Charles Carl Roberts IV took 10 young girls — ages 6 to 13 — hostage and killed five of them before he killed himself. The music of the performance includes religious hymns sung by the young girls, according to Josey.

“It makes the show a lot more eerie, and it really adds to the whole performance and ties it together,” she said.

The brutal account was Lowery’s first time directing after spending his first year on the team as an actor. He said it was a difficult balance to tweak the dialogue for competition and to not overact and overpower the message.

“I really like that it didn’t focus on the shooting itself,” he said. “It shows the community’s response to it and focuses on that, rather than the actual shooting.”

Facing the brunt of that community’s venom is Carol Stuckey, the gunman’s widow. Brooks had to convey the woman’s inner turmoil while playing the character.

“It was really hard to find the persona to put on to project that conflict, but once I got it, it was easy to project that my life was falling apart to the audience,” she said.

Alspaugh played Sherry Local, a resident of Nickel Mines and one of the primary antagonists of Stuckey’s. She blames the widow for what happened to the girls and spends much of the play screaming at her.

Cox tied for first with her performance of 6-year-old Velda, a victim who volunteered to be shot to protect the others. She had to get into a terrified mindset to embody Velda while simultaneously delivering intricacies in her scenes.

“It’s actually pretty exhausting,” she said. “I use up a lot of energy when I do this.”

The play is filled with complex characters, such as America, a pregnant, 16-year-old Hispanic girl.

Sheppard tied with Cox by bringing this character to the stage, who she described as a comic relief that challenged the stereotypes of her heritage. She also had to get slapped repeatedly by the student playing the character’s mother, which left her face burning, she said.

But the intensity of her fellow actors helped her get into character.

“They were telling the story, and I needed to tell it to,” she said.

The story describes the forgiveness by the Amish in the wake of the tragedy. Neighbours said her students showed capable maturity in handling these difficult topics, showing the value of cooperation that’s stressed in the play itself.

“A lot of adults could learn from these young men and women,” she said.

The team’s victory qualified it for the VSHL Super Regionals on Saturday, Feb. 17.

ALEX PERRY is a staff writer at The Suffolk News-Herald. Email him at