Reform School Girls

A lot to commend in this production of What Every Girl Should Know

It's 1914, and in New York City four adolescent girls inhabit a sparse room in a Catholic reformatory for wayward girls. They are considered wayward because they have behaved badly, like smashing one's father's head through a window. But more likely, we learn, the girls have been victimized, often sexually, and it is that victimization that has given rise to unbecoming behaviors. 

This is Monica Byrne's play What Every Girl Should Know, brought to us by the Something Something Theatre Company as part of their Women Who Dare season. It's an affecting though imperfect play, yet the company brings it to life with an honest and intimate effort. Unfortunately, its content, which explores the "radical" right of a woman to own her body, is still quite relevant. Although we would hope that the characters, their stories and their plight are not today's tragedy, that is sadly not the case. 

After their day doing laundry, a part of their punishment, they retreat to their room to play, to make and tell stories and, in the case of Lucy, pray to their namesake saints. Rituals of various kinds give their lives structure. Good Catholic girls, they are familiar with religious rituals like mass and confession, and being playful and inventive, they have created some of their own. When we first meet them they are engaged in their nightly ritual of masturbation, an activity some excel at, others not so much.  

When new girl is assigned to their room, she brings with her some leaflets that her mother had distributed, an act for which she was thrown into jail. The papers feature Margaret Sanger, whose radical views held that women had the right to control their choices, particularly in the realm of reproduction. It was her seminal work, of course, that lead to the founding of Planned Parenthood.  

The girls innocently enough pin a picture of Sanger to the door of their room, and whether it is from their own simple flights of fancy or whether they tap into their own spiritual or even mystical power, perhaps propelled by the presence of Sanger's image, they experience moments of rapture or transcendence. This is manifest in dance. They wordlessly enter into this activity, which binds them together, and perhaps is a catalyst for their actions as the play unfolds. 

Whenever we buy our tickets and take our seats at the theater, we have entered into the agreement called a willing suspension of disbelief. We know the characters onstage are actors, but we set aside our knowledge and agree that these characters are real people. We know that the set is not really a room in a reformatory, but we play along. Sometimes the playwright asks a little more of us. That's what happens here. We have settled into the convention of this being a straight, or realistic, play, but we are asked to bend the boundaries of realism to encompass these moments of choreography, a much more abstract way of storytelling. It's a bit surprising and confusing at first, but we set aside our disbelief and take these moments in and run with them, just as the actors must.   

This works well enough here, but I couldn't help but long for a more sophisticated way of highlighting these moments of dance, like with lighting, for example. But there is simply not the technical capability of such things in this particular theater space. We are reminded again of the depth that good design elements bring to a production. 

These actors—Ellie Boyles, Kate Cannon, Robin Carson and Christine Peterson—are fairly equally matched, and under Jasmine Roth's direction they all offer solid performances. It's a naked endeavor for any actor to embody a character, and here this ensemble is required to courageously embrace the vulnerability of the play's young women. 

Byrne's play is not totally successful. We see these girls being fun and rambunctious with each other, and struggling silently with their demons, but it's not clear where they or the story is headed until quite late in the play. Consequently, the ending seems rushed and not fully prepared for. This is the playwright's doing, and not the production's, but both the actors and the audience are asked to gather and grasp a lot of revelation in the last 15 minutes or so of a full-length play. It's a stretch. 

Still, there is a lot to commend here, not the least of which is Byrne's tackling of a difficult subject and finding a unique way of addressing it. That's the real gift of her work. The courage and insight this ensemble of young women and their director bring to Byrne's work is both touching and a painful reminder that even after a hundred years, women's reproductive rights are not universally secure. 

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