As "Dusty," the protagonist in the Northern Light Junior Theatre's new production of the "The Night The Forest Cried," 12-year-old Aaron Cohen portrays a sixth-grader who died on Mount Juneau in 1977.
The play is a fictionalized account of a real incident, and what makes the role difficult is that Cohen, like many of his castmates and, in fact, Dusty himself, attended Harborview Elementary.
"We know the person who taught Dusty when he died," Cohen said. "It's hard to imagine that the race in the play actually happened at the playground of the school that we once went to."
"When you're re-enacting something that really happened and it's something really sad, it's kind of hard to get your emotions out of the way before you can actually perform it," he said.
"The Night," a one-act musical directed by J. Althea and Apryle McVey, is light for most of its 65 minutes. It's poignant at others, but it's mostly the true-life tale of two boys who went hiking on Mount Juneau, above the Highlands, one October day after school.
"Dusty," already hobbled with a leg brace, falls into a crevasse during a storm and dies of hypothermia. His friend "Sammy," champion runner at Harborview, was found. Neither boy told anyone where they were going.
"It shows that one boy can affect many lives," said Shane Prentice-Walz, 10, who plays Dandylion.
"The Night" plays at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 7, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 14, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 15, at Northern Light United Church. Tickets are $8 for adults, $5 for students and seniors.
The messages should be obvious.
"One message is always tell your mom where you're going," said Siara Kelly, 10, a student at Harborview who plays Darrell, the tough kid. "The other one is that Juneau weather can change. It was a nice, bright, sunny day, and then the winds came in and it turned into a storm."
"I've gone up Mount Juneau before," Cohen said. "You never know if this could happen to you."
Former Juneau-Douglas High School drama director Donna Breeden wrote "The Night" in the early 1990s. A former Harborview teacher, Breeden knew the boys. J. Althea, JDHS music director at the time, wrote the songs.
The play was first performed as a two-act at JDHS in 1993. Althea re-staged it for one weekend in 2001 with the Douglas Youth Drama Association.
"The only reason we're doing it again is that we turned away over 150 people," Althea said. "The audience just responded, and people have asked each year, 'Are you going to do that play again?' Now we've grown and matured, and we can run two weekends."
"The Night" stars 22 kids, 19 of whom are on the stage at any one time. The spirits of the wind and forest are central to the action, adding premonition and personality to nature. The story itself is still difficult for some of the actors to deal with, not just because of the tragedy but also because of the familiarity.
"It's hard for all of us, because everyone's crying backstage," said Elizabeth Wagoner, 14, a student at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School who plays Screamin' Scarlett, a noisy flower. "And we all have complex makeup, so it's running down our face."
"It's really hard for me because I've always thought of Juneau as being the safest town in the world," said Veronica Narvaez, 12, a student at Floyd Dryden Middle School who plays Mama Leafy, mother tree of the forest.
"Juneau is so small and there are no criminals here," said Katie Pollard, 11, a home-schooled student who plays Padapan, caretaker spirit of the forest.
"It makes you wonder, really," said Amanda Moser, 12, a student at Floyd Dryden and the narrator in the play.
Korry Keeker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CAST IN ORDER OF APPEARANCE
Narrator: Amanda Mosher; Dusty: Aaron Cohen; Bonnie Blue Bell: Rachael Dahl; Mama Leafy: Veronica Narvaez; Annie Lacie: Glenn Hoskinson; Screamin' Scarlett: Elizabeth Wagoner; Dizzy Daizy: Sara Quinn; Rosie Rosita: Lael Rogers; Tiana: Zoey Wilson; Dandylion: Shane Prentice-Walz; Padapan: Katie Pollard; Playground Children: Sonne Kyle-Olsen, Shannon Smith, Kelli Childers, Emily Smith, Cydney Norberg, Chandelle Nelson, Alice Ottoson-McKeen, Abbey Allen; Sammy: Cheyenne Kennedy; Darrell: Siara Kelly; Katie: Callie Conerton; Voice of the Ghost of Dusty's Dad: Tim Kelly; North Wind: Emily Smith; South Wind: Alice Ottoson-McKeen; East Wind: Shannon Smith; West Wind: Sonne Kyle-Olsen; Rockwald: Kelli Childers; Dusty's Mom: Sonne Kyle-Olsen; Angel of the Humans: Cydney Norberg; Ghost of Dusty's Dad: Emily Smith; Voice of the radio announcer: Jeff Brown; Sammy's Mom: Abbey Allen; Flowinda: Chandelle Nelson.