A heady experience at the Firehouse with the road-tripping "Heads." 

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Finally, a play for twentysomethings. Few stage shows appeal to that elusive audience that is too old for "Peter Pan" and too bored by the latest Broadway roadshow. Into this aching chasm of an age gap tumbles "Heads," the raw and raucous experience now playing at the Firehouse Theatre.

Written by Virginia Commonwealth University graduate Philip Bly and directed by Jonathan Wynn Wright, this play careens along like the broken-down bus that is its centerpiece, splitting the seams of the Firehouse stage and spilling out into the theater lobby. The ride is sometimes bumpy and the story stalls out once or twice, but overall, this rollicking road trip of a show has an essential vitality and a rigorous honesty that belie its rough exterior. (Oh, and it's got a kickin' soundtrack, too.)

Bly is young enough to write about today's youth culture with authority. But he is also wise enough to understand some of the basic archetypes that propel a good story forward. "Heads" describes a quest, and the Holy Grail the counterculture kids in this cast are looking for is called "puddin.'" Not the Bill Cosby-endorsed dessert, but the cosmic gelatinous substance that holds people together. The five characters at the center of the story follow the band Phish around the country, do drugs and dance passionately. They are a happy-go-lucky bunch until they pick up Molly (Carrie Carpenter), a newbie to the Phish phrenzy. She soon hatches a plan with the group's spiritual center, Paul (Peter Schmidt), that promises elevation to a higher, tastier level of puddin'. It involves splitting people into hardheads and softheads, a division that soon causes violent rifts among the faithful.

Director Wright establishes a breezy concert atmosphere early, having a 16-member cast wander freely around the theater, roaming in and around a car and a small bus. However, he soon brings the focus sharply in on the show's pivotal triangle: Paul, Molly and Paige (Lela Ferranti). As Paul, the shaggy Schmidt gives an amazing performance, equal parts reluctant messiah and delusional druggie. In her professional debut, Ferranti is like a coiled spring as Paige, rising leader of the hardheads. Her supportive and sweet exterior hides a steely edge and a powerful punch. Carpenter also gives a nuanced performance, her awkwardness easily giving way to a calculating intelligence.

But the two characters that are most fun to watch are Dodger (Jonathan Deluca), Paige's stoner boyfriend, and Ike (Drew Bergman), the dealer whose drugs lubricate the Phish followers. Bergman, in particular, immerses himself in the role of self-described "capitalist pig" Ike, and defies expectations with a self-sacrificing turnaround late in the play. Deluca's Dodger puts a 21st-century spin on Sean Penn's Spicoli character from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." His "can't we get along" dialogue with a cop is a hoot.

A show so caught up in drugs and the road can't make it to the finish without some community-theater-style clunkiness and a couple of pace-slowing indulgences. And if the theme of young people searching for meaning and unity seems a bit of a cliché, well, it's also a perfect launching point for some invigorating theater. Though it borrows from the classics of yore, "Heads" is a show firmly rooted in the vernacular of today's culture. For an audience that theater usually steers clear of, it's a big fat — or should I say "phat" — gift.


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