What’s a Tall Girl to do During the Depression?
Produced by Washington Ensemble Theatre and directed by Kelly Kitchens, Meg Miroshnik’s play about teenage aspirations amidst hopelessness during the Dust Bowl, Tall Girls opened at 12th Ave Arts. Unfortunately, the play and this production reflected the themes presented in the play-high aspirations but a fairly hopeless outcome.
Like many movies and plays about small-town life, two strangers with a lot of emotional baggage arrive on the same train and start to change things, as their lives becomes interconnected. Haunt Johnny, played by Ali El-Gasseir, is a prodigal returning after having received an education somehow, with a brand-new basketball, an expensive luxury in the 1930’s. Teenaged Jean, played by Leah Salcido Pfenning, is a New Yorker whose motivations for coming to stay with her mother’s widowed brother-in-law’s farming family is initially unclear and mysterious.
During the Depression Women’s Basketball Teams were quite popular at the professional and college level. So, Johnny, a basketball enthusiast, who has become a teacher, coaches a girl’s H.S. basketball team, which becomes the vehicle, upon which all the girls pin their hopes for escape from the limited options available to them. It seems the only chance they have to forge their own destinies.
Various forces conspire against them, but only one of them manages to pursue her dream; for the others, family obligations, social conventions, cruel twists of fate and the forces of the Depression intervene. The vainest, who in reality is less of a knock-out than her self-image, settles for being a cheerleader as a way to stay active and stay around basketball. The coach fares just as badly.
Without being preachy or didactic the play does demonstrate the constraints placed on women by geographic and economic circumstances, as well as socially imposed gender limitations ; these girls almost make it, they valiantly struggle to reach a goal but most of them settle for Plan D, in order to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. However, the play itself and the production were disappointing.
Although the playwright has won many awards, the play was not well-plotted, the exposition went on and on, too much time was spent on the basketball court rather than with the emotional life of the young women. It was difficult to judge how effective the dialogue was because much of it was incomprehensible.
The black box studio space at 12th Ave Arts does not have the best acoustics, and the five actresses who played the basketball team all lacked vocal ability, the diction was mushy and about 30% of the lines were mumbled; instead of supporting their voices through breathing, they relied on screeching and shouting, for about 80% of the play. The play suffered a lot from poor direction. Sitting for two hours and listening to that much shouting did not engage the audience. Often lines were completely lost because they were speaking upstage. Sitting in the back-row, my vision was blocked and some major plot points were missed because some of the action took place right in front of the first row.
There was only one good scene to work with, when the new arrivals confess their pasts, without shouting or screeching and speaking in conversational tones, the audience could understand them and were drawn into the emotional conflict, both Ali as Haunt Johnny and Leah as Jean, evoked a lot of sympathy from the audience and we were routing for them.
The best part of the evening was the ambience created by the set, designed by Cameron Irwin and sound by James Schreck. Using somber tones to depict the hopelessness of the Great Depression, the set evoked a farming community and the moveable basketball hoop was a metaphor for opportunities dangling before them but ultimately being out of their reach.
The Blues and Country music was brilliant and was almost worth the price of the ticket; however even though this play has been around for a few years, it needs a re-write and this production did not bring out the best in a very flawed script.
Tall Girls. Washington Ensemble Theatre ( WET) 12th Ave Arts. 1620-12th Ave, Capitol Hill, Seattle 98122. Thur, Fri, Sat, 7:30 Sun matinée. (some Mon eves) Thru May 18 Tickets: http://depts.washington.edu/sphsc/clinicalservices/ or www. Washingtonensemble.org