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A Whale of a Play

Annual play combines Halloween, moral lesson.

Add together more than 50 children, 250 double-A batteries, 210 stretchy spider webs, 400 amps of electricity, 72 bottles of silly string and more than 850 electrical connections with a funny play that teaches a moral lesson, and Heather Cooper calls it a day.

For the fifth year, Cooper has organized, written, directed and choreographed her Halloween Parables play, bringing together neighborhood children in costumes with a little life lesson.

"Every year, we have a new show," said Cooper, who began organizing the annual event in 2001 when a new path in the woods opened in her Fairfax Station neighborhood.

The story this year is called "In the Belly of the Whale" and is a take on the story of Jonah, Cooper said.

Jonah and his two friends, Jerry and Miah, feel like the uncool children at their school and in order to impress their classmates, they decide to throw a big party on Jonah's aunt's yacht, Cooper said. While Jonah is initially hesitant, his friends convince him it's a good idea.

"Of course, the party gets out of hand and Jonah gets knocked off the boat, which is wrecked from all the kids," Cooper said. Jerry and Miah jump into the water to save their friend, but get swallowed by the whale.

While in the whale, the three friends meet fish and characters from previous plays who warn the boys they won't be freed until they learn their lesson — the best friends worth having are the ones who stick by you when things get rough.

MORE THAN 500 people arrived on Cooper's doorstep last year to watch the play, her biggest crowd yet.

"We're so thrilled for this year. We have 52 children in the cast, which is our biggest one," she said.

In addition to providing the costumes and props, Cooper also gives any Boy or Girl Scouts that help her set up the play merit badges for theater work.

With each play, Cooper said, she strives to make the play funny and friendly, not spooky and scary.

"It's good not to freak the little kids out, so we try not to be too scary," she said.

Following the play, the children are able to walk through a Haunted Trail, created on the path that led to the beginning of the play.

The trail itself is another of Cooper's projects — the entire trail is lit from the trees, complete with mummies, spiders, sound effects and fog machines.

"We have a pretend cemetery in the woods, someone will dress up like Dracula, another kid will be a mad scientist and have something that feels like brains or looks like eyeballs," she said.

Still, as much as she loves the creative process in writing and producing the play, Cooper admits it's a bit overwhelming at times.

"Every year I get to the point where I'm in tears thinking I can't do it, but it always comes together," she said.

Maybe that's due in part to the legion of grateful moms who offer to help.

"I loved the idea that you're taking Halloween and turning it into a parable," said Robin Sachlis, a friend of Cooper's who has helped out the past two years.

As a spectator, Sachlis said she loves watching the play, but also enjoys seeing her two children so involved in something in their community.

"It's a great idea," she said. "She really puts the play at the level of the youngest kids. Plus, the kids in the play don't have to memorize lines, it's all pre-recorded for them, so they can just have fun with it."

Angela Conerly said she's been involved with the play since her daughter's first role in it a few years ago.

"Most of the drama in the area is directed toward older kids but this is great, every year the parts get a little bigger and they get more responsibility," Conerly said. "It's essentially a professional play in (Cooper's) backyard."

Conerly said it's important to remember that Cooper puts on the play every year as a volunteer.

"She essentially does this all herself. She spends hundreds of hours putting this all together, her to-do list has thousands of things on it," Conerly said.

Kathy Paxton said the youngest of her three daughters has been listening to the CD of the play for a few days at home and really enjoys the story.

"From what I've been hearing, the story is all about friends, being a good friend," Paxton said. "The little lesson does seem to have an effect on them."

Paxton said she also enjoys the break from driving her children across town for yet another activity.

"I know they're safe down the street," she said. "They love Heather, they like doing something fun and close to home."