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Gilrs in the Driver's Seat

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Be Aggressive

Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

at Breadline Theatre

Most road literature concerns men with a pronounced wild streak who take to the hills to avoid civilization. But for women, much of the journey is becoming uncivilized enough to walk out in the first place.

Annie Weisman's deliciously dark, sassy comedy about teenage girls on the road at first seems to have little in common with such classics of doomed feminism as Thelma & Louise. But beneath the play's firecracker dialogue and somewhat shopworn satire of west-coast suburban ennui is a relentlessly truthful portrait of how teenage girls work the system--and each other--to gain a sense of self. Moreover, Weisman never succumbs to the seemingly irresistible temptation to punish her rebellious characters with rape, disfigurement, or death.

Death happens, but it happens even before the play opens. The mother of one of Weisman's protagonists, Laura, has died in a hit-and-run accident. When we meet Laura herself, after seeing a gaggle of her fellow cheerleaders gossiping about her mother's demise, she's trying to prepare her younger sister, Hannah, for the funeral. "It will be like a pep rally but quieter," she says as she pulls a brush through Hannah's hair. Laura's plans to return to her high school routine--which includes a job at the local smoothie palace as well as cheerleading--are upended by her father, Phil, who insists that she take on the shopping, cooking, and other support-staff functions of the household. But we get an insight into his grief when he and the girls are sorting through a pile of their mother's clothes and he quickly shoves a black teddy into the pocket of his khakis.

With the aid of her little sister, Laura begins sneaking out of the house to work and practice her cheers. She also becomes friends with a tough, brassy blond emigre from the deep south, Leslie, who's determined to take cheerleading to new heights--and who's also possibly pregnant. "He said he'd pull out right away," she sneers. "So did Nixon in 'Nam." Leslie has a huge need to prove herself, and she needs Laura as a sidekick and audience. The two hatch a scheme to run off to a cheerleading camp in North Carolina where they can learn new--and possibly dangerous--routines that call for "Bible Belt intensity." The rest of the squad ("perky coastal preppies," in Leslie's withering phrase) are aghast at the duo's punked-up rawness in the title cheer. "We were being what we were saying for once," screams Leslie. To which the squad captain responds, "We don't do the being. We do the cheering." Simone de Beauvoir couldn't have described the archetypal condition of women any more succinctly.

The road trip doesn't happen until the second act, but Weisman lays the groundwork for it carefully. Laura tries to figure out whether her father's job played any role in her mother's death; Phil is a real estate consultant, and the new freeway being built through town is diverting heavy traffic to the coastal road where his wife was jogging when she was killed. The antidevelopment angle is the most pat element of the script, threatening to turn Phil into a generic yuppie monster--particularly given his rants against "white trash with their government-issue cheese sandwiches" who might take over the town, Vista Del Sol, and its beachfront. The stultifying essence of the place is captured in monologues delivered by Laura at the smoothie shop. After running through a hilarious list of New Age additives such as "cabala cran," Laura muses, "We never run out of anything here." Though the land is disappearing under asphalt and the shoreline is eroding, the residents take their affluence for granted. Meanwhile, Laura's dad chops down the eucalyptus tree planted by her mother--the soil is too shallow to hold its roots. That kind of symbolic overload could capsize the play, but Edward Sobel's staging, which features a minimum of significant "moments," keeps it on course.

Most fascinating is the way the two girls change places once the trip is under way: as Leslie begins to falter and make noises about returning home, the emotionally shut-down Laura becomes more exhilarated and expansive. This kind of "flipping" is common among teenage girls, as the follower becomes the true believer and the troublemaker reverts to conformity. But until this play I'd never seen this dynamic fully explored onstage, and I've never seen it captured with such subtlety, wit, and respect. The 1989 film Heathers may have dissected the nasty games girls play, but Weisman does something harder: she makes us understand why these two need each other initially and why they drift apart.

Leslie, bitter about her outsider status, blames her mother, Judy, who won a settlement as a tobacco-company whistle-blower. Seeking attention, Leslie coaxes Laura into her harebrained plan to run away. But when her desperate bravado runs up against Laura's deeper quest--to reconnect with her mother and figure out how to be a daughter, sister, and woman without her--Leslie blinks. Not being her mother isn't enough to carry Leslie into a different life. Laura, devoid of Leslie's easy cynicism, is the one who comes out ahead on their road to nowhere.

Sobel and his ensemble invest the material with sparkling energy and smartly detailed performances. Jennifer Kern's Laura is slightly awkward and intensely aware, while Krista Lally plays Leslie with glorious screwball panache. Ashley Neal, in the quasi-irritating role of the little sister, shows herself a trickster in her own right--her interview with the cops after Laura takes off is delightful. In the potentially thankless roles of Phil and Judy, Keith Kupferer and Sarah Wellington manage to sidestep the script's sitcom cliches about clueless, careless parents. And the perky chorus of cheerleaders keeps the action between the cinematically structured scenes moving.

Lindsay Jones's sound design evokes mournful gulls and endless waves, and Laura's home is decked out by set designer Nathan Combs in an aqua palette just this side of tacky; Jaymi Lee Smith's lighting suggests a constant twilight. Like its teen protagonists, Weisman's script and this production carve out their own niches, using their wit and revealing a surprising depth.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Krysta Blazatis.

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