Off Trail strays from the path of cliché coming-of-age dramas

May 23, 2024

(Left to Right) Findlay, Gilmore, Toloczko, Sukstorf, and Nevatia in Off Trail Photo by Izzy Wagener

At the tail end of the school year on April 27 and April 28, those who couldn’t get enough of Georgetown theater flocked to classroom DPAC 035 in the labyrinthine basement of the Davis Performing Arts Center. There were no campfires, no tents, and––besides the images projected against the back wall––no trees, and yet Off Trail’s engrossing story and performances transported the audience to the Sierra Nevada backcountry.

In Off Trail, a play written and directed by Jina Zhao (SFS ’24), a group of students attending a wilderness boarding school are left to their own devices after their teacher dies on a school-sponsored backpacking trip. While attempting to return to the main path on dwindling provisions, this hodgepodge of a group bonds by divulging secrets that complicate their stereotypical facades. The play came to Georgetown outside the usual avenues of departmental or co-curricular theater, produced instead through the initiative of its director, playwright, and stage manager Jina Zhao.

The play trods the well-worn trail of the coming-of-age ensemble drama, with a clashing cast of characters––the nerd, the jock, the popular girl, the class clown, and the shy loner––finding friendship and common ground while navigating their way back to civilization. Though a necessary catalyst for the rest of the play, their teacher’s death is never explained—a lingering confusion amidst an otherwise tight script. 

Off Trail follows in the footsteps of high school films like The Breakfast Club (which Zhao cites as an inspiration), but its unique setting fosters a sense of freshness. Inspired by her experience attending a wilderness boarding school, Zhao utilizes a backpacking trip gone awry to bring together characters who wouldn’t otherwise interact in their everyday lives. The production made impressive use of the small classroom space and limited set pieces; a black box and a set of black steps placed strategically on the stage provided topographical variation while projected images of nature—woods, mountain ridges, tree-draped paths—transported viewers to the Californian backcountry. 

Photo by Izzy Wagener

Off Trail’s talented cast embodied each distinct, dramatic archetype brilliantly. The group is led by wilderness-savvy, type-A nerd Lane, played by Julia Toloczko (CAS ’26), whose leadership is challenged by Andy (Rishu Nevatia (CAS ’27)), an attention-seeking class clown hiding a troubled relationship with his parents. Andy also finds himself in conflict with Jay (Nate Findlay (CAS ’27)), the jock of the group, who––despite his popularity––struggles with his parents’ dashed expectations and his own sexuality. The tensions wrought by the competing personalities of these three characters is eased by Naomi (Ruby Gilmore (SFS ’26)), the popular girl with a calming nature, and Will (Peter Sukstorf (SFS ’26)), a shy musician who offers a grounded maturity. 

As the ensemble transitions from awkward strangers to a loving found family, the cast’s charming chemistry shines. As Lane grows closer to her peers, Toloczko softens her characters’ abrasive leadership style through gentle smiles and a kind tone. Nevatia makes Andy’s humor grow less combative and more communal, invoking laughter from his peers rather than defensive retorts. As Jay embraces vulnerability, Findlay expresses a friendlier side of his character, relaxing his posture and tone. Gilmore embeds Naomi with a sympathy that contradicts her perceived shallowness as a queen bee. Sukstorf communicates Will’s shyness with closed body language and a downward stare, contrasting the confident, open postures of Andy and Jay, characters who are more accustomed to commanding attention.

Zhao intersperses moments of monologue between narrative scenes. During these asides in which each character recounts their perspective on the ordeal to an unseen interlocutor, Zhao cleverly imbues her play with verbal irony; in one pair of scenes, collective bickering follows a monologue emphasizing the group’s teamwork.

Since these monologues illuminate the students’ ultimate survival, the play’s tension arises not from the question of if they will make it home, but rather what secrets they will reveal. These secrets are not uncommon among highschool dramas: the jock is secretly gay, the rich kid who acts out is estranged from his parents, and the cool girl is not the airhead others assume her to be. However, the play’s unique setting, coupled with the actors’ adroit rendering of the urgency and stress characterizing late adolescence, keeps these tropes from feeling tired.  

Photo by Izzy Wagener

The play comfortably straddles two genres: wilderness survival (a reference to Lord of the Flies comes soon after the group finds themselves stranded) and bildungsroman. By situating tensions of understanding oneself amongst the stress of a survival story, Zhao lifts the teenage drama out of the typical high school classroom and places it into the wild. Faced with an uncompromising environment, the students encounter daunting challenges––a rattlesnake, a dislocated shoulder––while divulging deep-rooted secrets. The juxtaposition of precarious survival with personal turmoil elevates both challenges, rather than making the students’ day-to-day issues feel small. Removed from their usual environment, these students grow to see each other beyond the stereotypes they would otherwise transpose on each other. 

Secrets revealed deep in the liberating seclusion of the Sierra Nevada, coupled with the character’s desperate search for the path that will return them to society, give Off Trail’s title its double meaning: the students find themselves cut off from both the main trail and their usual, stifling boarding school environment. It is only off the trail, far from their usual society and the lives it’s carved out for them that these students can open up to each other, be their true selves, and forge friendships that they otherwise would never have made.

Disclaimer: Jina Zhao formerly served as a Photo Editor and designer for the Voice.

Eileen Miller
Eileen is a sophomore studying Regional and Comparative Studies and an assistant Voices editor. She hails from a small island near Seattle and is a big fan of evergreen trees. When she isn’t writing coherent, fact-based Voice articles, she is writing nonsensical, absurd fiction.

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