Sarah Elizabeth Bedard and Gordon Clapp in Midvale High School Fiftieth Reunion, directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner, at Central Square Theater.
Sarah Elizabeth Bedard and Gordon Clapp in Midvale High School Fiftieth Reunion, directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner, at Central Square Theater.
(© A.R. Sinclair Photography/Central Square Theater)

If high school graduation is the universal rite of passage for an American adolescent, then its corollary is the progression of class reunions that follows, when friendships and rivalries reappear as if the years had never passed. Playwright Alan Brody's share of these events surely inspired his new play, The Midvale High School Fiftieth Reunion, which unfolds in a haze of possibility after an unexpected encounter.

The audience is invited to attend the Midvale High reunion, along with the four-hander cast. Under the direction of Lee Mikeska Gardner, the Nora Theater Company at Central Square Theater is presenting the world premiere of Brody's 75-minute play as if the entire house were the ballroom where the reunion is about to take place. Many of the viewers are seated around the playing space at tables decorated in swaths of fabrics and balloon bouquets, with strings of lights overhead (set designed by Steven Royal). Emmy-winning actor Gordon Clapp (NYPD Blue) plays Tom Terres, a guy who who slid through high school with his head kept down. Debra Wise appears as Bettina Belknap, the class sweetheart and brain.

During the 50 years since graduation, Tom has become a writer and the proprietor of a bookstore in Maine. Bettina is a neuroscientist, a fact, she wryly explains, that "usually stops the conversation cold." Tom is divorced with no children, while Bettina is a widow with two thirtysomething adult children. While Tom remembers Bettina from school, she has a hard time recalling him. However, they share the practice of investing more emotions in their work than in their relationships, even with their loved ones.

The other classmates in the mix are invisible, but we are led to believe they are in the room by Tom and Bettina's halting conversations with them. Speaking to each other in platitudes and half-sentences at first, the pair gradually start flirting, then make their way to the dance floor. By the end of the play, there is clearly the sense of new beginnings for them, beyond the class reunion.

Brody effectively delivers separate backstories for Tom and Bettina in scenes that bring the past to life. Two other actors fill out the cast as the various people they encountered. Sarah Elizabeth Bedard appears in several roles, as a wannabe teenybopper high school girlfriend who chases Tom, and later as the wife he ignored. The chameleonlike Matthew Zahnzinger plays the randy 16-year-old who hit on Bettina 50 years ago in an empty classroom, the professor who denied her admittance to a prestigious graduate program because he didn't want to waste resources on a woman, and finally her deceased husband. Clapp and Wise also play a simpler version of their younger selves, before they acquire all of their baggage.

The Midvale High School Fiftieth Reunion will surely have a future in theaters around the country, given the long-lasting potency of embarrassing and formative memories of our teen years. The play neither mines major crises in society nor poses any questions about the meaning of life, but who would argue that examining the moment that connects two lonely people in search of love is any less important.