Hills on Fire

Third-year MFA acting students Elaina Walton (Wilma “Grandma Ma” Stray) and MaRah Williams (Kelsey Stray) embrace during rehearsal for "Hills on Fire." 

Students of the UF School of Theatre + Dance brought the heat with their premiere of the musical “Hills on Fire” this past weekend. More than 40 students, faculty and family members were present for the cast’s final performance Sunday afternoon.

“Hills on Fire” is a ghost-story-musical about the opioid crisis in Appalachia. It was created by UF’s School of Theatre + Dance in collaboration with Tilted Windmills Theatricals. It ran June 6-9.

Assistant Director Katie Hauser said the School of Theatre + Dance does an artistic residency program throughout the summer where the school invites theater practitioners to help the students develop a script.

Hauser also explained how the musical highlights heart and humanity in the midst of a town’s crisis.

The musical takes place in Perdue, Pennsylvania. It starts off with the main protagonist, Kelsey Stray (MaRah Williams), almost losing her widower father, Edipus Stray (Bryan Ferriter), in a coal mining fire.

To cope with his pain from the fire, her father is given prescription medication, which Kelsey’s brother Mark Stray (Wildlin Pierrevil) sells to his drug dealer friend Jeremy (James Dennis) for $500 for the first bottle and even more for the subsequent bottles

Later, Kelsey’s brother relapses into his former drug addiction and she is forced to assume the matriarch role and deal with the ups and downs in her family’s life.

The musical delivers a fresh perspective on the frequently discussed social issue of drug addiction while emphasizing the importance of family.

Wooden explained the cast discussed addiction together when writing the script and shared stories about family and friends struggling with drug addiction.

After the performance, the cast held a discussion with the audience about drug use and how it affects them. One crowd member shared how the play really hit home for them because of their background as a medical practitioner who prescribes medication.

Also, rather than being excluded from the rest of the cast, Jeremy is portrayed as extroverted and normal, which is atypical for a drug dealer role.

Co-writer Keaton Wooden said when writing the script he did not intend to have villains, he wanted to make his characters have certain traits and let the audience decide whether they were good or bad.

“Everyone’s seen Breaking Bad,” said Wildlin Pierrevil, who played Mark. “We wanted to do something different.”