JOHN LENNON AND ME, Babcock Stage, Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, University of Utah, through July 19 (355-2787 or 581-7100). Running time: two hours (one intermission).

Cherie Bennett, the woman who wrote, "John Lennon and Me," was in the audience on opening night at the Babcock Theatre. In a question-and-answer session after the play, she paid a serious compliment to the Youth Theatre at the University of Utah.

Bennett lives in Los Angeles (where she writes for the television show "Smallville"), and she travels all over the country to watch her plays performed. She said there is nothing outside of New York to compare to the U.'s training for young actors. She talked of depth and breadth and backstage experience.

Having just seen the production, starring some very young and talented kids — working the spotlight and standing in the spotlight — we pretty much had to believe her.

Bennett, who wrote "Anne and Me," which was performed last year at the Babcock, is in town to workshop a new play, "Hearts Divided." "John Lennon and Me" was the first play she wrote, she said. She loved the Beatles and was stunned by the loss of someone who was so creative. So she wrote a play about a creative girl, a girl burning with energy that she may never live to spend.

This is a story of terminal illness and first kisses. It is about the life that goes on in a hospital for sick kids. The play will make you laugh and cry — and squirm. (Bennett says it makes adults uncomfortable to watch children facing death and questioning the existence of God; she is right.)

On opening night, Maren Ritter (a student at Churchill Junior High) played Star, an irrepressible 13-year-old with Cystic Fibrosis. Cassie Crockett was Courtney, her roommate, a girl in the hospital for the first time. Courtney has the life Star will never have. She goes to a regular school and has friends and a boyfriend.

When she tells Star that the sick kids scare her and she's glad she got a "normal" roommate, Star decides to hide how sick she really is.

Fortunately, Star is an old hand at hiding the truth. Star's mother, Claudia, certainly wants her to be "fine." So, between bouts of coughing up blood, Star always says she is "fine."

If all this sounds dismal, it is not. The dialogue is crisp and amusing. The teenagers sound like teenagers, only funnier. And there are plenty of sight gags. Example: Tammy Leigh Davis, as Claudia, adjusting her low-cut dress. And Faye Barron, as "The Torturer," stomping through her nursing duties.

All the teen actors in this production did a nice job, especially the flunkies (a kind of dancing Greek chorus), and Shelby Andersen as Sally and Chris Eckels as Jeff.

Bennett says she didn't know there was such a thing as theater for youth when she wrote this play. She was just writing about teenagers. And, because she is an actor at heart, she's sad that she's too old to play Star, because it is a rich role.

The term "youth theater" should not be interpreted as "children's theater." Disease and death are serious themes.

On the other hand, the word "youth" should not keep any adults away. This is not a professional production, but it certainly is impressive youth theater.


E-MAIL: susan@desnews.com