While most students dream of presents and maybe even a chance to go skiing during Winter break, let alone catching up on sleep, Ben Zoeller decided to sit down, and, well … write a full-length drama. The play, titled The Curious End of Ezekiel Williams, was presented last week at Monument Mountain Regional High School as part of the Advanced Drama class’ evening of performances. Not surprisingly, Zoeller’s sophisticated drama received a lengthy standing ovation.
What began as a simple class assignment soon became a much larger project for Zoeller, who decided he had bigger ambitions for the project. “I wanted to write something bigger, something that I could really relate to,” Zoeller said of his inspiration. “I went to bed one night and said, ‘God, when I wake up, can I please have an idea in my head?’ And I did. I decided I wanted to write a play about really close childhood friends who become estranged. I fleshed it out, and it came together.”
Zoeller wrote the first half of the play during Winter break, and finished up the second half during February break, a time when many dream of wiggling their toes in warm sand. “It took a lot of time,” Zoeller said. “I wrote until the wee hours of dawn. But it came very naturally for me. It just flowed through me and came out really fast.”
Zoeller considered the play a work in progress, something that he would pitch to the class next year. But the illness of Jolyn Unruh, the school’s beloved drama and English teacher, created a gap in the class’s spring performance. “The door unexpectedly opened for the play to come into being before I thought it’d be ready,” Zoeller said.
With Unruh’s blessing, and his classmates’ growing enthusiasm, the class decided to move ahead with Zoeller’s mostly finished script. “We wanted something motivating and powerful to do,” said senior Elinor Cherin. “Here was a chance to perform it for the person who wrote it. We got to do it for Ben, to help him bring his ideas alive. Given the situation with Jolyn, it was a huge healing thing, something meaningful that we could all connect to as a close group.”
The play, which has a cast of 22, recounts the mysterious death of a man (Ezekiel Williams) widely admired in his community, who is found dead, along with a drifter, at the gravestone of a childhood friend. He died with a gunshot to the heart, but why? What could have led to such a grisly confrontation, and at a cemetery in the early morning, on the anniversary of another death? A local police detective finds himself stumped by the apparent murder. As it slowly works to unravel the mystery, the play cycles back and forth between “Zeke” and his close band of buddies as youngsters, teens, and adults. There is a surprising amount of layered pathos woven through the script as the audience comes to better understand what motivates each character — the squabbles, the dreams, the love, the charm, the hatred, the jealousy and shame — and explains their actions. It’s the themes of young love, loyalty, and trauma that unite the characters and draw the audience to its fateful conclusion.
Zoeller was clearly awed by the production of his play, watching his classmates act out the words that he had so recently written. It’s an accomplishment that one hears of occasionally happening at the high school level, but rare indeed.
“It was the best feeling in the world,” he said. “I was so nervous this morning. I’ve never had such stage fright before and I’m not even on stage. But it turned out wonderfully. I’m so happy, and grateful to everyone who helped.”
The evening began with a witty one-act play, titled “Check, Please!” about the awkwardness of dating in today’s world. Two main characters at a cafe find themselves stuck meeting with one worse date after another, including a woman with multiple personalities, a man with a phobia of everything, including peanut butter sticking to his mouth, and even a mime.
The play was directed by Elinor Cherin, who also starred in it. Although Cherin has co-directed several plays with her teacher Unruh, this was the first time she directed a play by herself, a situation necessitated by Unruh’s absence. “I was nervous at first, but Jolyn told me that she’d taught me everything she could and that it was time to put her trust in me to step up and teach the others.” Cherin, who will be studying drama at Pace University next fall, said it was a challenge to direct one’s peers without an adult there, but that she was really pleased with the result. “It worked out really well,” she said. “Everyone was great.”
The evening of performances was dedicated to Ms. Unruh.