By Ruth Ross
Those of us with daughters, nieces or granddaughters involved in sports may forget that before Title IX was passed in 1972, women's sports either did not exist, were woefully underfunded or just plainly disapproved of (and in some communities outlawed) as dangers to female health, especially child bearing. That period of the modern Stone Age is the focus of Luna Stage's East Coast premiere of Meg Miroshnik's basketball drama, The Tall Girls.
Directed by venerable Luna Stage founder Jane Mandel, Miroshnik's play, set in a Dust Bowl backwater in the 1930s, follows the fortunes of five teenagers and their basketball coach as they form a team with the intent of going all the way to the state tournament.
When almost-16-year-old Jean arrives in Poor Prairie, her "grave town," the first person she meets is a ghost-like, mysterious man named Haunt Johnny, who has returned to his hometown with the idea of starting a girls' basketball team. Sizing her up as tall, he charms her into joining a team he puts together with her rough-and-tumble cousin Almeda, 17-year-old farm girl Inez, drama queen beauty Lurlene and prissy Puppy. As an outsider, Jean is viewed with suspicion by the other girls, especially Almeda, who resents this Easterner being sent to help her widowed father rein in her wild ways. Add to that Puppy's mother's adherence to the principles of Campaign for Play, a group started by the First Lady, Mrs. Hoover, with the object of outlawing all women's sports as unladylike and unhealthy. Hot Johnny and his girls work hard, but just as success is within reach, secrets are revealed that derail their plans. (Above: L-R: Mike Mihm, Emily Verla, Daisy Chase, Brigie Coughlin, Vanessa Cardenas, Lucy Schmidt. Photo Credit Christopher Drukker.)
Christopher and Justin Swader have designed an evocative set with a curving wooden wall and basketball hoop that serves as train station, classroom and gymnasium, and the girls move with precision through their practices and games. In the little black box theater, so close to the action, the audience feels as though it is seated courtside. Deborah Caney is to be commended for her costume design; it perfectly communicates both class rank and personalities in its close resemblance to those cotton dresses worn by the downtrodden women in Dorothea Lange's famous Depression-era photographs.
Despite the play's title and Haunt Johnny's compliments of the girls, none of them is really tall; in fact, other than Emily Verla who plays Jean and Daisy Chase who plays Lurlene, the other three are on the short side. It's hard to imagine them playing basketball. That aside, the acting is uneven, with much of the dialogue sounding memorized rather than convincing and natural. Perhaps it was opening weekend jitters; hopefully, the girls will relax and really become their characters. Emily Verla is excellent as the tortured Jean, harboring a secret and clearly a better player than the others—even though she's never played before. Her performance is matched by Mike Mihm as Haunt Johnny; his smooth talk and slightly smarmy charm sets off alarm bells in the opening scene, but he warms up to the girls despite his officiousness as coach. We sense that he really wants these girls to succeed.
As Almeda, the wild child, Vanessa Cardenas exudes anger and passion. She of all the girls really loves basketball and dreams of playing professionally. Her contentiousness is a bit off-putting at first, but she does win our hearts through her sheer force of will. Brigie Coughlin is heartbreaking as Inez, oldest of seven children in a family living on the edge as corn prices fall. Basketball is a safe haven for her, even though she has little talent. As the lazy, flirtatious, sexy Lurlene, Daisy Chase swans around the stage a great deal and is more annoying than sympathetic. She drips with conceit and drama; had she shown Lurlene's more vulnerable side, she would have won our hearts more easily. And Lucy Schmidt's Puppy is the most annoying of all, as she spouts her mother's moral pronouncements at face value, erupting into a nasty scene where she really tells the other four how she feels about them. As the most unlikeable of the group, she has, perhaps, the most difficult role, for from the outset, the audience is not on her side. (Above: L-R: Vanessa Cardenas, Brigie Coughlin (seated), Daisy Chase, Mike Mihm, Lucy Schmidt, Emily Verla. Photo Credit Christopher Drukker.)
Playwright Meg Miroshnik raises the curtain on a little known moment in history, and Luna’s new Context Room is a great place to fill in the gaps the play leaves open. A woman basketball player named Babe Dublin is the girls' idol, having formed a barnstorming team named Babe's Ballers. Almeda, above all, dreams of joining such a team. With her nail paint, silk stockings and dreams of a tiara, Lurlene represents the role of women in the era, even going so far as to suggest that the girls ditch their middy blouse-and-knickers uniforms for something more scanty to attract a crowd. The role she ultimately envisions for herself perfectly embodies the opinion of women's place in sports held by the general public up until the early 70s. That women could play sports for a living evidently never crossed their minds.
The Tall Girls is an interesting take on women's place in society. Despite a long second act, the play is worthy of Luna Stage's notice, given their penchant for finding and producing new, and often unknown, works. With more natural and convincing performances, this could be a winner. Let's hope everyone settles down and plays a good game for the next two weekends!
The Tall Girls will be performed at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange, through November 1. There will be post-performance talkbacks on two Thursdays, October 22 and October 29. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.395.5551 or visit www.lunastage.org online.
NOTE: This would be a good play for teenage girls (and boys), so think of bringing them to a performance!