STONEHAM - From high (“Friday Night Lights’’) to low (“Twilight,’’ “Glee,’’ “Gossip Girl’’), it’s not hard to see the influence on youth culture of “Romeo and Juliet.’’
In his depiction of the “star-crossed lovers,’’ Shakespeare found a tragic grandeur in the love lives of teenagers, and encouraged many lesser artists to embark on similar expeditions.
Yet stage productions have often cast actors in their 20s to play Juliet, who is 13, and Romeo, who is not much older.
ROMEO AND JULIET
By showcasing age-appropriate actors to play the doomed young lovers, their friends, and their enemies, Stoneham Theatre’s “Romeo and Juliet’’ offers a refreshing corrective (and makes a modest bit of history as the first production of Shakespeare by this suburban theater, now in its 12th season).
Under the codirection of Weylin Symes and Caitlin Lowans, more than half of the roles are played by teenagers, including 15-year-old Lily Steven as Juliet, 19-year-old Diego Buscaglia as Romeo, and 15-year-old Hannah Woodsum as Mercutio.
The generational mix, with veteran actors like Steven Barkhimer (Prince Escalus of the ruling House of Verona) rounding out the cast, helps to illustrate the extent to which Romeo and Juliet are seeking to carve out a world of their own, simultaneously seeking refuge from and defying adult authority.
Of course, it’s possible to go too far in trying to capitalize on the youthful energy of teenage performers, and in the early stages of this “Romeo and Juliet,’’ Symes and Lowans do just that.
To underscore the ancient animosity between the Capulets and Montagues, cast members have been encouraged to punctuate their verbal jousts with incessant pushing and prodding of one another. The visual effect is wearisome, and puts an extra burden on young actors who are trying to cope with the challenges of iambic pentameter.
If “Romeo and Juliet’’ is too hectic at that point, it is too static at others. Overall, the production has not yet found its rhythm. Yet there are some lovely, lyrical touches, and it’s hard to fault the ambition of the enterprise, with its focus on building the next generation of actors.
Steven, a sophomore at Cambridge School of Weston, is an expressive Juliet, with a lit-from-within radiance. She has already appeared in New Repertory Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol’’ and the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Paula Vogel’s “A Civil War Christmas,’’ and her experience shows in the confident way she attacks Juliet’s big emotional scenes. Her future is a promising one.
Buscaglia, a 2010 graduate of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, is most effective in Romeo’s fiery moments. The chemistry between him and Steven could use some work, and the scene where Romeo first spies Juliet at a masked ball needs to register with a stronger jolt of electricity. But later, the two of them pair off for a love scene - while the grown-ups prattle on a catwalk above - that is heart-piercing in its tenderness.
The production is set in the 1990s, with characters attired (by costume designer Rachel Padula-Shufelt) in sneakers, cutoff shorts, and backward-facing baseball caps. But with its rusty basketball hoop and hanging laundry, Kathryn Kawecki’s two-story set also evokes the gritty streetscapes of 1957’s “West Side Story,’’ a musicalized retelling of “Romeo and Juliet.’’ Speaking of music: The composer Nathan Leigh contributes several evocative songs, with lyrics drawn from Shakespeare’s sonnets.
The adult actors - including Claire Warden as Lady Capulet and Richard Arum as a wrathful Lord Capulet - are capable enough. Christopher James Webb, a fine actor, is wasted in the negligible role of Lord Montague.
Only Aimee Doherty truly stands out, however (and not just because one of Boston’s most vivacious actresses is playing a part often reserved for senior citizens). At first, her Nurse is a blusteringly oblivious figure of comedy, and at one point seems intent on scooping up Romeo for herself. But Doherty’s Nurse slowly evolves into the heartsick conscience of this “Romeo and Juliet,’’ who can only look on helplessly as her generation’s dogmatism destroys its young.
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.