BATH — Local playwright and Morse High School theater teacher Kevin O’Leary doesn’t shy away from a challenge in his latest play, “Rock ‘n Roll.” During the chaos of the 1960s, “Rock ‘n Roll” shows that, thought times may be changing, the song remains the same.

The show debuts at The Studio Theater at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave. in Portland, Sept. 26 and runs through Oct. 6, with performances at 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays.

Playwright and teacher Kevin O’Leary poses for a photo in the Morse High School theater. Kelli Park photo

“Rock ‘n Roll” features a group of friends experiencing the social turmoil that developed between two landmark events in 1969: Woodstock, a celebration of peace, music, and love, on Aug. 15, and Altamont, on Dec. 6. Though Altamont was intended to be “Woodstock West,” the event was marred by the murder of an African-American man by a member of Hell’s Angel who was working security. The play jumps ahead to 1989, at which point the fate of the group of friends is revealed.

O’Leary relies on his own life experiences to set the stage for “Rock ‘n Roll,” remembering how his family anxiously waited to see if a draft letter would arrive for one of his older brothers during the Vietnam War (none of his three brothers were drafted). In the midst of the chaotic political climate, O’Leary and his friends immersed themselves in rock ‘n roll, one album at a time.

“We’d go out and buy the album, analyze it to death, pretend we were the band, and philosophize,” said O’Leary.

O’Leary focuses on human conflicts that have withstood the test of time: relationships, loyalty, freedom, mortality, and forgiveness. “The things we carry, the burdens, the secrets, the pain – it doesn’t go away unless we deal with it,” said O’Leary.

“Sometimes there are forces beyond our control that shape us and form us and turn us into who we become,” said Marie Stewart Harmon, an actor in the play. “That person isn’t always who we may have expected and coming to terms with that and finding forgiveness is something that everyone can relate to. Finding forgiveness for these things may be one of the hardest, but most cathartic, things an individual can do.”

Though the clothes and the cars have changed, “Rock ‘n Roll” shows that there are distinct parallels between past and present. The peace and love of the 1960s coexisted with addiction, war, and discrimination, while modern issues are accompanied by acts of violence, addiction and political conflict.

“The constructive and destructive forces in the world were, and continue to be, tangled together in our life experiences,” said Sean Ramey, who plays the lead in “Rock ‘n Roll.” “The players have changed. The game remains the same.”

Teaching at Morse, O’Leary challenges his theater students  to embrace life’s challenges as part of the creative process.

“Working for Kevin is always an organic experience where, as actors, we are able to make bold choices and have discussions that inspire moments within the text,” said Harmon, a former student who has appeared in several of O’Leary’s plays.

O’Leary finds connections between the generations, one act at a time. He delves into the dark undercurrents of the era known largely for peace, love, and harmony, only to find that those same undercurrents continue to run their course today under a different guise.

“What’s going on in this nation right now is hauntingly familiar in what is said and expressed in the play,” O’Leary said. “If you switch out Nixon and that situation, and plug this in, have we grown at all? Have we changed at all?”

 

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