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'Pepper Street' Evokes Powerful Response From Those Who Have Been on the Brink : Ignored by Critics, Others Hail Its Approach to Teen Suicide and Drug Abuse

November 20, 1987|DAVID WHARTON | Times Staff Writer

"Pepper Street" hasn't attracted much critical attention. The musical is making just enough money to pay the bills and not enough to pay its actors. Its producers get letters from the few people who have seen it.

"I felt invaded in the fact that you knew exactly what I . . . feel," wrote one young woman. "One of the reasons I tried to commit suicide was because I felt I wasn't special in any way, shape or form. But last night, seeing the play, I realized something. The only way for me to become special is to stick around. So you'd better look out, because this kid is going to be special."

"Pepper Street" has received other letters of praise from community leaders, politicians and school officials. The play is being lauded for its positive approach to teen suicide and drug abuse. It is being credited as a form of therapy. Teens from local hospitals and runaway centers are often among the audiences of 80 or so at the tiny Venture Theatre in Burbank.

Guardian Angel

"I've seen the reaction to this particular show by teen-agers," said Dr. Michael Peck, a consultant to the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center, who recommends the play to the youths he counsels. "There's a sense of hope from it. The kids that I've talked to have felt that."

The play tells the story of Spirit Wills, the black-sheep daughter of evangelist Sister Jane Wills. In the first scene, Spirit attempts suicide with a bottle of peppermint schnapps and a handful of tranquilizers. Michael Jackson blares from a stereo in the background.

From there, the plot takes an "It's a Wonderful Life" twist, as a guardian angel gives Spirit a behind-the-scenes peek at "perfect" Sister Jane and her religious following.

Guardian angels do not commonly appear in real life, and the play's theme is simplistic when compared to the issues facing most troubled teens. But this has not stopped "Pepper Street" from accumulating followers who believe it has something to teach. Some devotees have attended the musical a dozen or more times.

Barbara Preston, a Northridge education consultant and member of the 31st District Parent Teacher Student Assn., has made the play a sort of crusade. She has dragged school board members and community leaders to see it. She has sought government grants to keep the show alive.

"It's a movement using theater as a way to feel better," Preston said.

The author of "Pepper Street" is a woman named Toni Bull Bua, who in 1980 walked away from a decade of acting in soap operas and left New York City for California. She said she wanted to write something "to hit at the emotions of people."

Opened in 1984

"Pepper Street" opened for one night at a church in 1984. It later played a five-week run at a Hollywood playhouse. For the last eight months, it has found a home at the Venture. At $15 a seat for Friday and Saturday performances, the receipts are enough to cover theater rental, props and two musicians.

Bua and her husband, Gene, a soap opera veteran who directed and scored the musical, said they have been taken aback by audience response to what they created.

"When we first saw how it affected people, we thought, 'What do we have here?' " said Bua, 40, who spent 10 years as a regular on "Love of Life." " 'Pepper Street' is important. It changes people's lives and I'm proud of that."

Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) and the mayors of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills have officially commended the play for its insight and community service. Tonight, Burbank Mayor Michael R. Hastings will take members of the City Council and other city officials to a special performance.

Ollie Rogers, a publicist, was so touched by "Pepper Street" that she has volunteered about 40 hours a week to promote it. Rogers is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who first saw the play three years ago with another recovering addict.

"I was so emotionally affected," said Rogers, who recalled that her friend "came out with tears in her eyes. She said to me, 'How did they know? How did they know that it's OK not to be perfect when I've been dying all my life for that?' "

Much of what Rogers does is elicit sponsors for the play--people or organizations who will buy tickets and donate them to youth groups. In this way, Rogers has brought in troubled teens from throughout Los Angeles.

One such group came from the adolescent chemical dependency unit at Long Beach's Memorial Medical Center. Counselor Tina Vince remembers the bus ride to Long Beach after the play.

"Usually, when we get in the van, the radio goes on and that's it," Vince said. "This night, nobody asked for the radio. They were talking about the play. It directly hit upon the things they were struggling with. It was neat."

So far, "Pepper Street" has received none of the notice that could send it to a larger theater. Bua holds out hope that someday critical acclaim will match community support. If people like Rogers and Preston have their way, there will be a production of "Pepper Street" in every town in America.

"We've built our lives around this play," Rogers said.

Either way, Bua said, the response to the play has been reward enough.

Wrote a young man named Gregg after seeing the play:

"During the years of my addiction, I experienced many of the situations depicted in your play. All the emotions I felt in the past came back to me. 'Pepper Street' reaffirmed my commitment to sobriety, and I'm grateful for it. I'd love to see the play again, and I wish all recovering addicts could experience all the emotions I felt."

"Pepper Street" plays every Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Venture Theatre, 3435 W. Magnolia St., Burbank. Tickets are $15 and $12.

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