During each of the past five summers, Bethel Park High School English teacher Cortney Williams has written the annual fall play.
So a natural question would be: Does it get any easier?
“It doesn’t,” she said as her students rehearsed for “Fireworks On the 4th,” her original for 2019. “Every year I think, this is the hardest play to write. This is definitely the hardest. And then the next summer, it’s no, this one was really hard to write.”
Perhaps that has something to do with her maintaining a fresh approach annually. This year’s production is pretty much a romantic comedy, on the heels of last year’s mystery, following a based-on-a-true-story drama in 2017.
“This one had its own challenges in trying to find the comedic elements and trying to find the right pitch,” Williams said about “Fireworks On the 4th,” which, as you may have guessed, focuses on Independence Day.
The setting is a town called Parkwood, where the idea of having the biggest Fourth of July parade around constantly is foiled by a rival community. On the verge of retirement, Parkwood’s recreation and public works director decides to spark attendance by inviting a native son who’s made it big in Hollywood.
He happens to have dated the town’s public relations person in the distant past, so she is tapped to help bring him back. But of course, she’s not exactly hip to the idea.
And hilarity ensues.
Williams said she drew inspiration for “Fireworks On the 4th” by attending Independence Day festivities in Brentwood, the hometown of her husband, David.
“I was astounded by how many people attend the parade and how excited they get,” she recalled. “So I kind of started to think a little bit about the whole Fourth of July parade concept, and I kept thinking about everything that could go wrong.”
Part of that is because her mother, Judy Falce, worked for Bethel Park Recreation and Leisure Services back in the day and has some tales to tell about Independence Days of yesteryear, including some involving the fire company. Plus Williams received further insight from one of her husband’s friends.
“His dad used to be on the committee for the Brentwood parade,” she said. “So I got some stories about what happened there.”
As for coming up with the plot point of a famous person returning to his hometown:
“Part of the inspiration was that I was in first grade with Danny Fogelman.”
Yes, the creator of the NBC-TV’s “This Is Us” lived in Bethel Park until age 7, which helps explain why the series is based in Pittsburgh.
No, Williams hasn’t seen him since first grade.
Playing the famed fictional James Kent in “Fireworks On the 4th” is senior Ryan Maerkle, who has participated in the fall play during all four years of high school.
“I’m a really big fan of this play. I think that it’s a cool concept,” he said. “It’s definitely a daunting task, doing a play that no one else has done before, because we’re kind of setting a standard.”
Regarding his character:
“He’s the famous TV show writer and he’s kind of a jerk, so it’s a fun role to play because I get to be a jerk onstage to people and kind of be stuck up. So I’m a fan about that.”
Portraying James’ ex, Bella McShane, is sophomore Isabella Zallo.
“I really love the show for a few reasons. One of them is that there is so much contrast in the scenes. There’s a love theme and there are fighting scenes, especially with Ryan,” she said.
“There’s some tension in the beginning. I talk about him and I don’t want him to be the grand marshal. But there’s a sense of, I want to make the community a better place and I want the Fourth of July to be great for everybody.”
That especially would apply to the recreation and public works director, Billy Jude, played by junior Kelly Katilius.
“I can be a little bit lighter and fun with everything because my one true love is the Fourth of July,” she explained. “This whole play is based around my true love of the Fourth of July.”
And in real life:
“I do love the Fourth of July, because it always does have a great atmosphere and ambience to it.”
Donning an Uncle Sam costume for rehearsal was freshman Dylan Finnell as Parkwood Mayor Tony Molinaro.
“I’m having a lot of fun with it,” he said. “I’m just doing what I think he would do in the situation, which is to be as loud and funny as possible.”
Speaking of Parkwood, the town is fictional, but Williams places it right here in the South Hills. She has Pittsburgh references sprinkled in here and there, including one about the late Mayor Sophie Masloff staging July 4 celebrations on July 3 to save money.
“The kids have no idea what I’m talking about,” Williams said. “But I figure there will be a couple of people in the audience who pick up on that.”