By Jill Diver
Having a desire to win as many spelling bees as possible in one’s lifetime is not a common goal.
However, for the six characters ages 10 to 13 in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” it is a constant pursuit.
While each character tries to surpass his or her own high standards, each learns valuable lessons while fighting for the title of spelling bee champion.
Northern Essex Community College’s Topnotch Players present the musical comedy, “The 25th Annual County Spell- ing Bee,” at the college’s Haverhill campus now through Saturday, Nov. 13.
In the story, six students in varying phases of puberty learn that sometimes accepting yourself and understanding who you are is more important than winning.
Twenty-four-year director John Budzyna,44, of Newburyport, leads the actors, who are all college students themselves rang- ing in age from 19 to 47.
“It’s interesting to direct college-aged students,” Budzyna said. “It’s fun to see how adults play kids.”
For most people, recalling the awkward stages of adolescence might be difficult, but this is exactly what Budzyna asks his actors to do.
“Usually they want to shut out those years,” Budzyna said. “I’m asking (the actors) to regress themselves back to those hormonal ages. Some understand what it’s like to be 12, but a lot of them have blocked it out. They try and forget body image issues and how it felt to not know how to act around boys and girls.”
Brooke Lavoie, 19, of Methuen, has been acting for seven years. She plays Logainne Swartzandgrubenierre, the 10-year-old daughter of two fathers.
“Logan has a little lisp, which makes things difficult for her with her classmates,” Lavoie said. “She is also politically active, and is very different from myself. I’m not too into politics, but at 10 she knows more about politics than I do now.”
Al Comeau, 47, plays one of Logan’s fathers, Dan Grubeni- erre. This Haverhill native says he plays the balanced and more nurturing of the two fathers.
“I spend a lot to time trying to protect (Logan), while Logan’s other father puts more pressure on her to win,” Comeau said. “I think this play takes a very sar- castic view on how parents pres- sure their children and how kids treat each other.”
For characters like Logan, this is especially true.
“Logan is definitely an over- achiever. She feels she has a lot to prove to her fathers,” Lavoie said. “She gets made fun of, and is embarrassed for having two dads.”
And though the idea of a musi- cal about a spelling bee seems to be a story for children, according to Comeau, the play is not appro- priate for a younger audience. In fact, he believes it resonates bet- ter with an older crowd.
To help the audience empathize with the experience of being a child under spelling-bee pres- sure, four volunteers are picked prior to the show to compete on stage with the actors.
“This play is about learning how to find friendship and about kids who feel their parents don’t pay enough attention to them,” Comeau said. “At the end of the play, the characters are adults and talk about what it was like to be themselves as children and how hard it was.”
For Lavoie, playing the char- acter of Logan comes with its difficulties.
“I’ve never played a character so young,” she said. “It’s a chal- lenge to bring myself from my world to the world of a young child. … In the end, I hope that people enjoy the play and step into the little world we portray.”