DUNMORE — Matt and Peter are in their high school production of “Romeo and Juliet,” and each of them wishes a fellow cast member would return his off-stage affection with the same kind of ardor he feels.
That could pass for the plot of an old-time TV sitcom, except that while Matt is pining for Ivy, the girl who plays Juliet, Peter wants Jason, the boy who plays Romeo, to publicly acknowledge their up-till-now-secret relationship.
Matt and Peter sing about their respective feelings in the “Are You There?” number from “Bare: A Pop Opera,” which the Act Out Theatre Group is presenting this weekend at its performance space on East Grove Street.
“It’s a really powerful moment,” said Ryan Carey, 19, of Dunmore, who plays Matt. “We’re talking about the people we’re crushing on, but we’re also talking to a greater presence, talking to God. Where are you? Why have you forsaken us?”
Raw emotions and questions about sexuality, identity and religion are all part of the drama, which authors Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo placed at a Catholic boarding school.
“A lot of people our age can identify with what the characters are going through, and a lot of adults can remember,” said Shea Quinn, 18, of Clarks Summit, who plays Peter.
In real life Quinn came out as gay when he was “halfway through high school.” He remembers feeling accepted at Scranton Preparatory School in Scranton.
“I was the first student at my school to bring a boy to the prom,” he said. “Everybody was like ‘yeah!’”
Cast mates Ashlynn Cox, 18, of Scranton, and Megan Farrell, 17, of Jessup, said they’ve seen less acceptance at another local, private high school.
“A lot of people feel stifled and judged,” Cox said. “Girls who identify as lesbian have to fight the administration when they want to wear pants to a formal event.”
“Good friends of ours have had that fight,” Farrell added. “We support them in that.”
“Scranton Prep is run by Jesuits,” Quinn commented. “They’re more laid back.”
In an instance of life coinciding with art, Quinn’s high school prom date was Tommy Walkowiak, 18, of West Wyoming, who plays Peter’s love interest, Jason.
The two did not audition for “Bare: A Pop Opera” as a team. In fact, Quinn said, they had broken up before they auditioned but became a couple again after they started rehearsing together.
Director Dan Pittman said he’s been eager to stage the show since he discovered its music as a freshman at DeSales University in Center Valley. “I fell in love with it. This show is like a birthday present to myself,” he said, noting he will turn 28 within the week.
The show, set in the present day, doesn’t sugar-coat the challenges many young people face, Pittman said.
“It deals with harsh realities of homophobia and drug use,” said Walkowiak, who is a student at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
“I will say it’s eye-opening,” said Vicky Stasukinas, 20, of Plymouth, who plays Ivy, the stereotyped “class tease.”
“She has a lot more to her,” Stasukinas said, adding that because the character Jason “is the only person who is genuinely nice to her,” Ivy complicates matters by falling in love with him.
With the school play “Romeo and Juliet” as a backdrop, characters have extra opportunities for drama such as a Tybalt vs. Romeo fight that becomes a Matt vs. Jason fight.
Watching it in rehearsal, Farrell said, the scuffle looked so realistic she mistakenly thought it was a Carey vs. Walkowiak fight. “I got nervous,” she said.
Another poignant “Romeo and Juliet” moment takes place when Peter steps into the Juliet role onstage, which allows him to express his true feelings for the youth playing Romeo.
Shakespeare fans know the Bard’s story of star-crossed lovers ends in tragedy, so they might not be surprised to see Peter and Jason won’t live happily ever after, either.
“In a way, it’s worse (for the modern pair), cast mate Michael Speranzo, of Scranton, said, reflecting on a conversation Jason has with a priest at the boarding school. The priest doesn’t offer the kind of encouragement Friar Laurence offers to Romeo.
“To be told that the way you live is not OK is a huge thing,” Speranzo said.
Reach Mary Therese Biebel at 570-991-6109 or on Twitter @BiebelMT.