Acacia Theatre Company


It’s hard enough to lose a loved one. Try being indirectly responsible for that person’s death — during a fight in which lingering last words are uttered in anger, leaving no time for a proper goodbye.

That’s the hell engulfing 12-year-old Darcy Deeton in Cherie Bennett’s Searching for David’s Heart, currently being staged by Christian-based Acacia Theatre, in a production that opened over the weekend under Rob Goodman’s direction.

The David commemorated in Bennett’s title is Darcy’s older brother (sweetly played here by David Lopez); it is his death and accompanying organ donation that trigger Darcy’s ensuing search for the lucky recipient now using David’s heart — through which her brother beats on.

The plot through which this story unfolds frequently strains credulity, and Bennett’s overstuffed script also takes on too much, including potentially interesting but largely undeveloped vignettes involving bullying, racism, class conflict and parenting (numerous cameos by adult actors; Jason Will, as Darcy’s father, stands out).

The reason this play nevertheless won a New Visions/New Voices award — presented biennially by the Kennedy Center to recognize new plays and musicals designed for young audiences and families — is its pulsing core: an alternately poignant and funny exploration of how we learn to cope with death, while overcoming the fears and insecurities that keep us from living.

The all-important medium charged with channeling that message is Darcy, and Goodman chose wisely in tapping 12-year-old Claire Zempel — impressive in last year’s Acacia production of Heaven Sent — to deliver Darcy’s story.

Long before Darcy’s brother dies, Zempel has conveyed the all-consuming fear of a precocious, self-conscious and stuttering misfit — she is called “Stutter Girl” at school — who worries that she is too brainy and too plain to be loved. Zempel’s Darcy can be aggressive and bratty, but we never doubt the reason: Fearing rejection, she pushes others away so she can beat them to the punch.

Darcy’s lone friend is Sam — ridiculed as “Shrimp Boy” at school, on account of his height. As nerdy as Darcy, Sam’s defense mechanism against life’s ridicule is humor.

Paul Budnowski, 13, gives us a winning Sam; he is funny in that self-deprecating and wonky way of teen boys — even as he also lets us see that Sam, like Darcy, is simultaneously protecting a tender, easily bruised ego.

Like Harry Houdini before him, Sam is Jewish and growing up in Appleton; it’s therefore no surprise that he worships the great magician. He and Darcy practice a Houdini routine — the “Metamorphosis” — that embodies their mutual desire to fly free of their fears, becoming as brave in life as they are in their magical thinking.

Magic actually brings Houdini to life, in the form of actor David Sapiro, who gives a wry, nicely understated performance as a protective spirit the audience alone can see.

Houdini shares with us what Darcy must learn and Zempel movingly conveys: Escapist fantasies are no substitute for the hard work of accepting oneself — just as Darcy can’t morph into the “beautiful butterfly” she hopes to become before first learning to love what she already is.