When it came time for drama teacher Marguerite Coley and her 17 students at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac to produce a play as a class project, they decided something "meaningful" and "real" was in order.
Bored by such standard fare as "West Side Story" and "My Fair Lady," they settled on "Vanities," a 4-year-old off-Broadway success that traces the lives of three high school cheerleaders.
They deleted most of the curses and vulgarities in the script, but the few that remained angered some of the parents in the audience of 350 that saw the play Friday night. As a result of parents' protests -- described by school and PTA officials as fewer than a dozen but more than half a dozen -- Churchill Principal Charles Bready has decided to set up a committee of school administrators to review plays in advance and have final say on what is or is not performed.
Commenting on the school drama scene yesterday, teacher Coley declared: "Pablum. That's all most people are used to seeing in high school dramas and that's all they care about. It was time for a change, that's all."
She said the play was totally produced and directed by her students and added that the idea originated last summer when she and 10 students saw "Vanities" performed at the 50th International Thespian Society conference at Ball State University.
The play, written by Jack Heifner, concerns three friends and spans 15 years from the girls' high school days through the years immediately after they graduate from college.
According to Coley, the drama examines misplaced human values and women's roles in society. One of the characters ends up working in an erotic art store, where she sells for $25,000 a six-foot sculpture of a male sex organ.
The original script includes numerous obscene references, but Coley said most were deleted. "The play was supposed to run for two hours, but we cut it down to only an hour and a quarter," she said, adding that the vulgarities left in the script were considered integral to the story.
The sole performance of the drama last Friday apparently got an enthusiastic reception from most Churchill students. "It was fantastic," said 12th-grader Jay DeVore yesterday. "The story paralleled high school culture and had a message for the larger society. It was shocking, but anything really worthwhile is supposed to be shocking."
Also present at Friday night's performance was Lois Williams, mother of a Churchill sophomore, who said, "If 'Vanities' were a movie it would be rated R and I wouldn't take my 12-year-old to see it. I've seen countless Churchill productions and have always considered them excellent. But this is just going too far."
Churchill principal Bready said yesterday he was unaware of the content of the play until he started receiving the parents' protests. "I was angry when I heard about it," he said. "It must have been really offensive." He said he had written a letter of complaint to Coley that will be placed in her personnel file.
Coley said yesterday she had "wanted the students to be able to deal with characters that have meat in their roles. We didn't do this for shock value. It was the message that was important. By taking words and phrases out of context, you do a disservice to writers and performers."
Rob Blackman, 17, student director of the play, said he "learned a lot about acting and drama" through his experience. "I don't regret doing it at all," he said, "I'm proud of the way the whole thing went."
Coley, who has taught drama at Churchill since 1972, said controversies over school play are "par for the course."
"When we did 'Godspell' we got complaints from people who thought it was sacriligious," she said. "We did an old play called 'Adrift in New York' once and received calls from people who thought we were advocating alcoholism because one of the scenes took place in a bar."
The drama class's project is not to be confused with the forthcoming production by the school's theater group of "Anything Goes," Cole Porter's 1934 smash hit.