After 44 years of ground-breaking theater at the high school level, Lou Volpe retired in May.

Volpe created a legendary drama program at Harry S Truman High School in Levittown, Pa. It was an unlikely achievement for a school in a hard-luck town where the blue-collar, steel mill jobs that once drove a healthy economy disappeared some years ago.

Under Volpe's direction, drama grew to rival sports for attention and participation.

His replacement is one of his former students, Tracey Krause.

 "I wrote Lou a letter when I was 17 years old, and gave it to him when I graduated from here," said Krause. "I told him I was going to come back and take his job."

That was 20 years ago. Krause left Levittown to go to college and study English literature, then came back to Harry S Truman High School to teach. It is her first and only teaching job, carrying on the lessons she learned from Volpe about theater.

"It showed me there were so many things I didn't know. If things were uncomfortable and topics were hard to discuss, it didn't mean shy away from them," said Krause during a rehearsal break last week. "Theater taught me to embrace things that were different, things that were difficult and upsetting, and I found a way as an outlet to deal with them."

The drama program -- and in particular the legacy of its founder -- is the subject of a book called "Drama High" by Michael Sokolove, another former student of Volpe's who credits the teacher for encouraging him to write. He is now a feature writer for the New York Times Magazine.

The drama program regularly wins state and national competitions, and has a reputation for taking on plays with very adult themes, which few other high schools would attempt.

Tough material, riveting theater

Cast members recently did a preliminary read-through of the upcoming fall production, "Five Kinds of Silence" by British playwright Shelagh Stephenson. It's a very difficult story of a woman and her two grown daughters who have lived for decades under the tyranny of a husband and father who physically and sexually abuses his family.

The play opens with the daughters shooting and killing their father, followed by a series of interrogations by police, lawyers, and social workers.

Rachel Greenberger, 17, read the part of Janet:

Smile, Janet. Smile. What will they make of these happy family snaps? With our sandals and frocks and arms entwined, a rabbit eating grass at our feet. And we're smiling, smiling for our lives. But at the back of my head, I say please - someone read the secret sign. Read it please. This is not real. Can't you see it in my eye? He kicks us where it can't be seen. Under our hair, under our clothes. He kicks us across the room. I want to tear off my dress and say look! Look! Look!

It's rough material for anybody, particularly high school students. The day before, Krause had the students do improvisations, experimenting in character, to better understand their roles. It left some of them emotionally distraught, reducing at least one student to tears.

The play is difficult for Tyler Aspell, 18, who portrays the abusive husband and father. His posthumous monologues are part memory, part dream of his own abusive mother, his obsessive mania in his household, and violence toward his wife and daughters.

"It's a dark, twisted monster," said Aspell, a senior. "I shouldn't be able to relate. But having that feeling of fear and power in your character is a meaningful thing. You can't play around with it."

Dramas echo realities of Levittown

Krause has promised to give the students a detox break after the play has its single performance Nov. 14, to "get happy again," before launching into preparations for their spring musical, "Catch Me If You Can." (They will perform "Five Kinds of Silence" once more during a student theater competition in December.)

She cringes at the suggestion that they do "Grease" or "Oklahoma!" or any other chestnut of high school theater.

"We don't like happy here," she said, adding that, in 15 years, they have staged just one musical in which a character does not die.

"Our children, our community, really has great coping skills," said Krause, a native of Levittown. "Unemployment, foreclosures, horrible drug addiction and drug dealing. Our kids come to us with such coping skills that other districts don't have.

"It's part of what makes them so good in this drama program," she said. "It's a sad thing, but it's a beautiful thing."

The students and teachers have a level of trust in each other that is rare in high school, which is also a key factor to the drama department's success.

"I never thought of him as my superior," said  Aspell, a senior who studied under Volpe as a junior. "I respected the hell out of him, but he never once made me feel small or insignificant. I don't want to be cliche and say he was like a father to me, but he essentially was."

This is Krause's first year as the head of the drama program at Harry S Truman High. She is heir to Volpe's daunting legacy.

"They are gi-normous shoes to fill. I'm never going to fill his shoes," said Krause. "I have my own to wear."

And with that, Krause walks her cobalt blue, 3-inch heels back to rehearsal, and back to work.