DOWNEY — The play at Warren High School last week was about the tragedy of teen-age suicide, and the point was driven home in the first minute, when a gleaming wooden casket was wheeled on stage.
Out popped a blonde in a nightgown, who began complaining about the bellyache she had after downing 36 Seconals and half a bottle of sherry the night before.
Trying to shrug off what she called a bad dream, the young woman said, "If I want to wake up, I can wake up." But as she paced the gymnasium floor, she became frantic. The dream would not end.
"Wake up, WAKE UP YOU . . . !" she shouted, concluding with a vulgarity.
In two performances Friday, all 2,000 students at Warren High were urged to wake up to the unromantic reality of teen-age suicide in "Heaven's North of Here," a play written, directed and performed by Molly Hardy.
Hardy originally was to perform the play next month at the high school, but the principal, Bill Spruston, asked Hardy and her troupe of actors to visit the school two weeks earlier after Ariel Janvari, 15, a Warren High sophomore, killed himself by jumping in front of cars on Florence Avenue May 10.
Rick Gastil, executive director of the Hot Line Help Center, an Anaheim-based nonprofit agency that counsels youths against suicide, said in an interview that hot line counselors warned Warren High administrators earlier this month that teen-age suicides sometimes have a contagious effect, and that spring is the peak season for them.
So Hardy, a 35-year-old Dana Point playwright and actor, agreed to stage the play ahead of schedule, and the results surprised both her and the principal.
The student audience laughed and cried. When the play ended, several students went up to meet the performers. One weeping girl had been a friend of Janvari's. Hours later, more than 400 students showed up for the first meeting of Students Against Suicide, a group sponsored by Hardy's nonprofit organization, Alive Inc.
The organization has three other chapters at high schools in Tustin, Riverside and Azusa. It was founded this year to give students their own forum for support and understanding, Hardy said.
Hardy said she hoped the group would "use peer pressure in a positive way, for once."
According to Hardy and students who attended the session, the teen-agers shared stories about siblings who had taken their own lives, and of a 5-year-old cousin who had hanged himself after his mother told him he had been bad. Some of the students talked about their own suicide attempts, Hardy said.
"It was really moving. You felt so close to everybody. You weren't afraid to talk and you weren't worried about people making fun of you," said Julie Lewis, 16, president of the incoming senior class.
"It was amazing, the number of people who themselves had tried it (suicide) or had relatives or friends who had tried it and succeeded," she said.
In an interview this week, Spruston said the play had significant impact at the school. After the play, and as part of an emphasis on preventing another tragedy, high school and hot--line counselors identified 20 "high-risk" students who will receive additional counseling, he said. Students have volunteered to support Students Against Suicide, and parents have already donated money to the new chapter.
"The thing that has been the most rewarding is I now have kids coming to me . . . I have parents giving me checks," Spruston said.
The one-act play is a confrontation between the young woman who pops out of the casket at her own funeral and an antagonistic man who is reading a newspaper, sipping herbal tea and wearing a California Angel baseball cap. After the "angel" wins several debates about life, philosophy and suicide, he rolls up his sleeves to reveal his own bandaged wrists.
At the end of the play, the angel leaves, after giving his newspaper and baseball cap to the now-enlightened woman, and the next casket is wheeled in. This one contains a young man who overdosed after a fight with his girlfriend.
In an interview, Hardy said she wrote the play in 1982 at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, and thought it was about "communication and relationships." But teachers at the school were impressed by its message about teen-age suicide, and urged her to produce the play for high school audiences.
Hardy herself attempted suicide when she was 20.
"I cut my wrists. I'm kind of your basic drama queen," she recalled. She said she helped found Students Against Suicide earlier this year because she wanted "to get the romance and the drama" out of suicide by "getting kids to stand up and talk about what it's like to get your stomach pumped."