MONMOUTH — On the surface, Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” is the story of an angry man obsessed with vengeance, but Thayer Whitney sees a more important story just beneath the surface. That story, Whitney says, displays the power of genuine faith to turn an enemy into a friend.

“If you’re coming just to watch for the entertainment of it, you will be entertained,” said Whitney, 17, who plays the lead role of Shylock in the Southern Maine Association of Shakespearean Homeschoolers production. “I think you really should come looking for a deeper message. You have to really pay attention, because there are a lot of hidden things.”

“The Merchant of Venice” opens Thursday night at Cumstom Hall and runs for two weekends.

This is the 22nd season SMASH has produced a spring play under the direction of the Rev. Samuel Richards, pastor of the East Winthrop Baptist Church. Richards, who honed his study of Shakespeare at Bates College and then Mansfield College at Oxford, founded SMASH as a means of contributing to the home-schooling community. Students have come from as far as Gray and Bath to take part in SMASH. This year’s cast and crew includes a family from Skowhegan and another from New Gloucester.

The members of the cast, who range in age from 5 to 18, were hard at work Monday as they put the finishing touches on months of study and practice. Production manager Larisa Batchelder, of Jay, whose two sons, ages 14 and 8, have parts in the play, said dozens of parents and children from about 12 families are involved in the production.

The students handle much of the costume and set preparation and the behind-the-scenes work, from sound and lighting to set changes, during the show. Richards looks to incorporate into the plays the children’s other talents, even having them perform songs they’ve written.

“I endeavour to include as many kids of interested families as I can, so the casts tend to be bigger,” Richards said. “As the youngsters grow in their experience of theater, they find areas of interest like makeup or costumes. We plug them into that, and we give them the training they need to perform those roles in a more than passable way. They do a great job.”

This week, which Richards called crunch week, the families will put in long days at Cumston Hall making final preparations. The home-school students continue their studies, however.

“A lot of them are doing homework in between,” Batchelder said. “We’re home-schooling in between.”

Six performances are scheduled over the next two weekends at Cumston Hall. Richards said each show typically draws about 200 people. This year, however, SMASH has been invited to put on a performance Friday, March 20, at the Homeschoolers of Maine 25th Annual Home Conference at the Samoset Resort in Rockport. The opportunity will allow the students to perform in a large theater in front of about 500 people.

“That’s just an incredible experience for the kids,” Richards said. “The crowd makes a difference.”

Work on this year’s play began with an October orientation. The next several months were spent auditioning, reading through the play and memorizing lines. This year the cast even created a promotional video with select scenes from the play.

Richards, who teaches Shakespeare from a Christian perspective, said he takes time talking about each play’s theme and how the plot and characters can instruct the students’ faith.

“I direct from the tradition by which the actor needs to understand what is going on,” Richards said. “Who he is and why he’s here and what he’s trying to accomplish. When we get into that kind of discussion of the plot and themes, and the world view that informs the play, then they’re able to do what they need to do to get that across.”

“The Merchant of Venice” has a history of stirring controversy and interest, but Richards said he chose the play because of the underlying themes that often go unnoticed, such as a critique of the hypocrisy that exists in the Christian and Jewish faiths and the joy found in genuine Christian faith.

“What’s really in the sights is not Jews or Christians or anything other than those who are hypocritical, who profess one thing about their faith and then act in ways that are contrary to that,” Richards said.

However, Antonio, the merchant, offers relief from that dark picture in his refusal to betray his deeply held Christian beliefs.

“When the time comes that he could wreak vengeance on Shylock, he says, ‘I have no interest in that. I don’t want vengeance. I’d rather have him become a Christian.'”

Richards admits that the interpretation of the play is not one that will be found in many places. Shylock is most often seen as the villain and the play as anti-Semitic, but Richards believes that is not what Shakespeare intended.

“If we’re led by the play rather than by our ideology or values, we’re going to find some surprising things there,” Richards said.

Whitney, of Fayette, earned a leading role after playing the lead character, Petruchio, in last year’s “Taming of the Shrew” in what was his first season with SMASH. Whitney said he has learned from “The Merchant of Venice” the importance of looking at the character of a person rather than just what is on the surface.

Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, is angry because he is living in a Christian society that is unkind to him, Whitney said. He is bent on revenge for much of the play.

“The treatment he receives from Antonio, who happens to be one of the Christians, changes his mind,” Whitney said. “At the end he actually converts to Christianity.”

Tasha Fleger, 15, of Litchfield, plays the role of Antonio after taking on the character of the servant Tranio in last year’s “Taming of the Shrew,” which also was Fleger’s inaugural season with SMASH. Fleger’s brothers, ages 10 and 7, also have roles in the play. Antonio is stalked by Shylock, who believes Antonio has ridiculed him and stolen from him.

“He’s going to cut a pound of flesh from my heart,” Fleger said. “That will be upsetting.”

Whitney, whose exposure to Shakespeare before joining SMASH was limited to reading his plays for school, said he has gained a profound appreciation for the playwright.

“It’s so much more than that,” Whitney said. “That he can take a common occurrence in those days and attach such a meaning to them, that’s what I’ve come to appreciate in Shakespeare. You have to look for it, but once you do, it’s very interesting.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4

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