Whichever long-ago resident named the town of Poor Prairie, the setting for Tall Girls on the Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage through March 30, was certainly a realist. There’s not much that’s aspirational or hopeful in the name, and there’s not much aspirational or hopeful in the place either: people are poor there, it is on the prairie. The character Jean (Emily Kitchens), who has recently been dumped with relatives in Poor Prairie so her mother can seek greener pastures, refers to it as her “gravetown.”
It’s the Great Depression, and not at all the cutesy, nostalgic, sepia-tinted one either: this is the brutal, dream-killing real deal. Girls in Poor Prairie, who are at the center of the play, marry young (if they’re lucky), get pregnant or run away. But there is a glimmer of hope, as elusive as it is, about basketball.
There’s the camaraderie of being on a team, the joy of the game, the chance of going “down-state” for a championship game, and even a distant possibility of getting paid to play. A new coach (Travis Smith) arrives in town at the same time as Jean, and as she joins the team and learns to love the game, she starts to wonder if Poor Prairie really needs to be her gravetown after all.
One of the show’s many strengths is its fantastic cast. Kitchens does a great job of limning the journey from grim pessimism to faint hope to experienced fatalism. Veronika Duerr is especially charming as the desperate-to-be-glamorous Lurlene — a lot like Carol Burnett, she can vacillate between deadpan and ham with ease, and she also brings out some of the serious and tragic aspects of what’s behind her character’s reflexively seductive ways.
Kally Duling nails it as the tough and scrappy tomboy Almeda. There’s an incisiveness to author Meg Miroshnik’s depiction of Poppy, the daughter of conservative, well-to-do (by Poor Prairie standards) parents. Actress Hayley Platt digs into a scene in which Poppy is beyond clueless about another girl’s family’s lack of money. “Everybody has a little bit tucked away somewhere,” she keeps saying sunnily, as if money were manna. Alliance artistic director Susan Booth, who directs Tall Girls, understands and conveys the fast camaraderie among the young women (but also their rivalries) and also the circumstantial fragility of their connections.
Chien-Yu Peng’s fantastic long, horizontal set not only literally evokes the prairie (it would be possible to just sit and watch designer Pete Shinn’s changing lights on the lovely backdrop of the sky for two hours, I think), but the vast space also allows for real basketball to be played on stage, one of the play’s winning charms.
The play’s tight focus is another of its strengths, but occasionally one feels the need for a larger cast (we see only the coach and five players). Characters speak about their homes, but we never see that aspect of their lives. An intermittent scene or two along those lines would help flesh things out and give the show more texture. The Depression-speak and jargon can occasionally get too dense: there’s not a single line that doesn’t sound like it’s from another era, in a singular rather than shopworn sense, a tour-de-force by the playwright but also sometimes difficult to absorb.
The play’s vision is pretty bleak, and its bleakness is thrown into relief by expectations about sports dramas and the jaunty use of real basketball-playing on stage: we expect to head to something cathartic and fun, like an underdog win at a big championship game. Tall Girls has a more realistic edge, with a bittersweet (emphasis on the bitter) second act that upsets all the outward tropes of the “stand up and cheer” genre.
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