Tempestuous clouds yield a droning rain. The grassy field is a a slippery sea of mud. Umbrellas bob and weave in the glare of stage lights as a sprinkling of dedicated playgoers searches for dry seats.
The traveling tent troupe of Silver Spring's St. Luke Lutheran Church, billed as the only drama company of its kind on this continent, last week came home for the season's final and -- on opening night -- rather damp performances.
The group of 19 high school students and their adult supervisors traveled across West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and Maryland this summer, performing "Inherit the Wind" and a medley of children's plays in spite of bad weather, a leaky tent and the other perils of living among the elements.
But the particpiants, who not only perform but live in the tent, seem to have no complaints. They say the summer-long experience makes for intense religious camaraderie mixed with a good dose of hard work.
"If we didn't love what we were doing, we just couldn't pull it off," said Kelly McCloskey, a student at Montgomery Blair High School who has traveled with the troupe for two summers. "We go to bed about 12:30 or 1 (a.m.) and get up at 5:30 (a.m.). It's a very special thing to do. It's not always easy . . . We look at it as a gift. Maybe we can make our audience smile or give them something that can help them through the day."
The troupe, founded in 1970, is run by St. Luke pastor David Shaheen (affectionately known to the group as "Pastor David"), who said the idea originally came from the traveling Chautauqua tent shows of the 1930s. Shaheen is a former elementary school teacher who chose to follow in his father's footsteps as a Lutheran minister.
Shaheen said the teen-agers who are culled from about 40 applicants each year are chosen not on the basis of dramatic ability, but for their sense of "commitment."
Young people who apply to join the troupe must answer several essay questions, submit three character references and undergo an hour-long interview. They also pay a $125 fee if they become a part of the troupe.
The "commitment" Shaheen stresses has religious overtones, as noted in the troupe brochure, which says St. Luke's teen-agers "take to the road each year because they believe God has given them a unique opportunity to share a pattern for living with others."
"We do this as an expression of our faith, our belief in Jesus Christ," said Pat Gibbons, a 1980 graduate of Springbrook High School. "(Inherit the Wind') is a moralistic play. We did it to provoke thoughts in the people who come about how they relate to God."
The troupe seems well equipped financially as well as spiritually. Shaheen said this year's group had a garage sale to raise $8,000, an amount which goes toward meeting the troupe's expenses of $1,000 per day. Audience donations taken during intermissions also help finance the company's travels.
Support is forthcoming from involved parents as well.
"The kids learn to put up the tent and they come home with callouses," said Anita Pendergraph, a volunteer whose daughter traveled with the troupe two years ago. "They learn to live together as a family and look out for each other. Each has a separate responsibility. When we came here this morning at 8, we couldn't just shuck and jive. We had work to do."
Shaheen said the troupe also is open to teen-agers who are not members of St. Luke church. Applications are accepted each December.