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Comedy For Families By Families

Home schoolers display their thespian talents and skills.

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The cast of ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’

About a family, for families and by families — that could be the tagline for Morningstar Productions' latest theatrical offering, "Cheaper by the Dozen." The play opens Thursday, Aug. 7, at 7:30 p.m., at Plymouth Haven Baptist Church, 8523 Fort Hunt Road, in Mount Vernon District.

Additional performances are Friday and Saturday night, commencing at the same hour, as well as a Saturday matinee with a 2 p.m. curtain time. Admission, collected at the door, is $7 per adult and $4 per child, student, or senior citizen. A $25 maximum per family unit is charged regardless of size. All proceeds go to financing the production.

Formerly known as Actors Communicating Character through Theater, Morningstar Productions enters its sixth year with this show. The cast is composed entirely of home-educated students in grades seven through 12 residing in Northern Virginia.

Formed in 2003 by several families who wanted to provide a venue for home educated students to hone their communications and thespian skills, members of the troupe "strive to utilize their talents for the purpose of presenting light spirited yet thought provoking plays, which edify and encourage the community" at large.

"Various families want their children to have the opportunity to perform on stage. That is difficult for home educated children," said Malissa Graves, a parent who directs this year's production.

"The reason I initially became involved was because my daughter was in one of the previous productions. Now she is a sophomore at NOVA Community College. Right now, she is attending Shakespeare Camp in Stanton, Va.," Graves said.

Many parents are actively involved in the productions serving as stagehands, makeup artists, set designers, constructors and a variety of other roles. Students who are not acting in the annual production also serve in support capacities.

"This is a group of parents and students who want to do shows that are family friendly. There is some real talent in the group, and has been since the beginning. Plus they are very good at telling stories," said parent Beth Sterne who has been involved for five seasons and directed last year's production of "The Matchmaker."

This year, her daughter, Mariana Sterne, has one of the lead roles as daughter Ernestine.

Karen Anderson, another active parent, serves as the photographer for the production company, and her husband, Don, handles technology. They have been involved for the past four years. Their daughter Summer plays the role of Mrs. Gilbreth, the mother, in this show.

"We choose the play in the spring," said Anderson. "Then we hold auditions and pick the cast. The kids take two months to memorize their lines. That is followed by an intense practice week of five to six hours a day. From the start of rehearsals to the actual performance is just three weeks."

In each play, some of the actors have some experience from being cast in previous plays. For others, it is their first live stage performance. "They all do a really professional job," she said. However, once they graduate from high school they are no longer eligible to participate, according to Anderson. Actors range in age from 12 to 17.

In addition to the outstanding display of stage talent, the costumes and sets are also very professional. "This year we are borrowing a set from Mount Vernon High School. They have been very generous in supporting us," said Graves.

Normally, the group constructs its own sets under the direction of home schooling parents Stacey and Mike Ipsan. They also have a son, William, and two daughters, Meredith and Catherine, playing roles in this week's show. William portrays Fred Gilbreth, Catherine is Martha Gilbreth, and Meredith takes on the role of Mrs. Fitzgerald.

The costumes are rented from a costumer in New York City, which gives the production company a discount in the summer because the demand for costumes is down at this time of year, Anderson explained. "We also get compliments every year on how professional our staging and costuming are as well as the individual performances," she said.

GEAVES FIRST became involved after watching the group's first show. "The 17-year old who directed that first show asked me if I would become the director," said Graves, who has a background in musical theater, having been involved in dinner theater while a student at State University College in Buffalo, N.Y. She is also a dancer.

"The beauty of this group is the families that are involved. Most of us participate in the Harvester Teaching Services at Harvester Presbyterian Church on Rolling Road in the Springfield area," Graves said.

She and her husband live near Mount Vernon High School. But participating parents and students come from Springfield, Annandale, Vienna, Alexandria and throughout Northern Virginia.

This week's show involves 20 students, 16 cast members and four involved in production. This does not include parents involvement in everything from publicity, handled this year by Gina Smithers, to program production and ticket sales to flat out grunt work.

"Cheaper by the Dozen," based on the book by the brother/sister team of Frank Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, relates the true story of Frank and Lilly Gilbreth and their 12 children as told through the eyes of two of their children. It highlights the comic events that occur as father and his oldest daughter, Anne, portrayed by Christina Morgan, navigate her emerging independence.

A pioneer of industrial/corporate efficiency, Frank Gilbreth, played by Matthew Silver, tries to apply those rules and methodologies to his large family and their daily activities. This leads to a wide array of encounters and incidents that prove both embarrassing and amusing, but usually very effective.

However, Anne often views her father's methodologies as making the family appear ridiculous to her classmates. But, in the end, the purpose of his approach is ultimately revealed.

"Each of our plays is geared to family audiences and presenting a family friendly message that everyone can enjoy," said Graves. Pervious productions, in addition to "The Matchmaker," have included such classics as "Sense and Sensibility," "Pride and Prejudice," and "Little Women."

Others in this production’s cast and the roles they play are: Frank-Daniel Hyland; Jackie - John Christophersen; Dan - Michael Schuenemeyer; Bill - Jackson Bargery; Lillian - Christina Schuenemeyer/Hannah Silver; Dr. Burton and Joe Scales - Felix van der Vaart; Miss Brill - Emily Hyland/Christine Orsini; and Larry - Jared Smithers.