Chicago Theatre Review
A Hoop Dream for Desperate Souls
The Tall Girls – Shattered Globe Theatre
For a girl with athletic skill, basketball may be the only way out of her dusty little hometown. Even during the Great Depression in the middle of the Dust Bowl there’s a smidgeon of hope. As the sun sets in the tiny train stop of Poor Prairie, a pretty, seemingly unassertive sixteen-year-old named Jean waits for her wild child cousin Almeda (nicknamed Al) to arrive and escort her to her new home.
Al’s mother recently passed away and Jean’s been sent from back East to help out her family and serve as the woman of the house. Al, who’s only two years younger than her educated cousin, resents Jean barging in and taking over her life. But there’s even more animosity. Jean’s attracted the eye of Haunt Johnny, the new math teacher and girls basketball coach. He sees in Jean a rising star player, a smart, talented leader for the other four high school-aged girls whose goal it is to be good enough to play in the state tournament.
However complications arise in this poverty-stricken prairie hamlet. Money’s as scarce as opportunity. Hard work and dust fills the days and nights. With increasing pressure from the 1930’s Committee on Play, proclaiming it dangerous for girls to engage in sports, the opportunity to have a bit of fun seems distant. Struggling to prevent the farm from being repossessed by the bank, coping with the demands of an overbearing parent, learning to care about and respect each other and play together as a team, while starting over in a brand new life, all threaten to tear apart this close-knit group of girls and their coach.
Meg Miroshnik’s beautifully poetic play, now enjoying its Chicago premiere, has seen successful productions around the country. This excellent presentation, directed with care and choreographed athletic precision by talented director Louis Contey, is another example of the uniformly fine productions offered by this storefront theatre company.
The script is quiet, thoughtful and heartfelt one minute; then the stage suddenly bursts with athletic energy and skill. Ms. Miroshnik’s drama isn’t actually a play about sports during the Great Depression. It’s a tender story set against that historical backdrop to show a time when women didn’t have the opportunities they have now. At a time when girls’ lives were all struggle and hardship, with very little joy or happiness or a chance for escape, sports provided a much-welcome outlet. The dreams and ambitions of these five young women illustrate the passion with which girls tried to break from this confinement.
The cast is terrific. Not only did Contey have to find talented actresses able to play these roles, he had to cast young women who could play (or taught to play) basketball. Angie Shriner is Jean, a teenage girl trying to come to grips with rejection and an abusive past. She’s tries hard to forge a new life in this dusty grave town, offering kindness and empathy for her feisty younger cousin, Al. Tracey Green is all spit and vinegar as Almeda, a girl who’s lost her mother and is resentful of anyone coming in to take her place. But when Al experiences the mystery of puberty, Jean’s guidance and love help her understand and cope with this moment. Jealousy and rivalry eventually disappear and the two girls bond on the basketball court.
Christina Gorman is very funny and a little sad as Lurlene. She plays a teenager harboring a low self-image, but who fantasizes about becoming a beautiful, desirable femme fatale, like the girls in her movie magazines. This statuesque young actress stands out with her athletic skills, as well as with her fine dramatic and comic prowess. Tina Munoz Pandya is sensational as Inez, a youngster saddled with running the house, while trying to help her family raise enough money to save the farm. Her eyes say everything her dialogue avoids. And Abby Smith “doesn’t disappoint” at all as the sweet mama’s girl, aptly named Puppy. Manipulated by an overpowering parent, Ms. Smith brings humor and pathos to a performance that’s powerful and impressive.
As the only male in this six-member ensemble, Joseph Wiens is superb. He plays Haunt Johnny, a man with a past and an air of mystery. He arrives in Poor Prairie at the same time as Jean. The two share a few secrets as he shows Jean the only brand new basketball in town, a treasure he keeps hidden in a cloth sack. Johnny will become the girls’ teacher, athletic coach and mentor, helping each of them to hone their athletic skills and achieve their dreams. But when Johnny’s past is revealed all semblance of hope seems to dissolve into the dust.
This lovely little play is charming and highly entertaining. It’s filled with the struggle, the dreams and the need to escape the inevitable that so many of us feel these days. It’s a story about earning self respect, against all odds, and becoming a family. Meg Miroshnik’s quiet little drama, dusted with moments of comedy and warmth, is a hoop dream for six desperate souls on the prairie.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 12-February 25 by Shattered Globe at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Theater Wit box office, by calling them at 773-975-8150 or by going to www.theaterwit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.