One hundred years separate the young women in What Every Girl Should Know and Dry Land, now playing in rep at Forum Theatre.
In Monica Byrne’s What Every Girl Should Know, the four teenage girls are housed in a pre-suffrage Catholic reformatory where their capacity to dream is limited to fantasies of romance and murder.
In Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land, the three teenage girls attend a contemporary Florida high school, where they swim competitively, have sex competitively, and forge friendships competitively.
What a difference one hundred years makes.
Forum’s productions, directed effectively by Jenna Duncan (What Every Girl Should Know) and Amber Paige McGinnis (Dry Land), are the stuff for which this gritty small theatre is best known. Provocative and engaging, and using alley staging to increase the intimacy, both plays put the characters front and center.
You’ll witness their hopes and struggles, their ill-considered choices and perplexing fetishes, and you’ll leave the theatre feeling as if you’ve gotten to know all young women just a little bit better.
What Every Girl Should Know focuses on four working-class Catholic girls all suffering the vagaries (or perhaps consistencies) of men.
More importantly, however, they suffer a society deeply afraid of sexuality, particularly female sexuality. You’ve heard of the Vagina Monologues; well, such soliloquies would have resulted in jail time during this World War I era play.
In fact, Margaret Sanger, the founder of the modern birth control movement, is the absent heroine of this play, as the young women adopt her as the patron saint of their dormitory room. Fleeing prosecution by federal authorities under the Comstock Act (i.e., for distributing obscene materials, i.e., sex education materials), the young women follow Margaret Sanger’s journeys through Britain and continental Europe spreading her message of “family limitation.”
The plot revolves around the arrival of Joan, played saucily by Lida Maria Benson. She is taking the place of another Joan who died “mysteriously” of a hemorrhage a short time earlier.
Anne, played feistily by Thais Menendez, is none too pleased with the change: trust is in short supply and Joan and Anne seemingly share the “who’s the toughest role” in this small corner of the globe.
Lucy, played with an abundance of innocence by Yakima Rich, sides with Anne: this new Joan must go.
Only Theresa, “the resident psychologist” in the room played by a strong-willed Emily Whitworth, intervenes to give the new girl a chance.
And that’s when Sanger enters, and that’s when the world begins to change. A world of ignorance, distrust, and powerlessness begins to give way to hope and dreams.
The relationship to Sanger lies at the core of this engaging play. Might the play have been stronger if the girls’ relationship to each other and to their own sexuality paralleled that central theme?
Indeed, yes. For What Every Girl Should Know is as much about Joan coming to reform school as it is Margaret Sanger reforming the world that girls inhabit. The liberation of the mind and the liberation of the body go hand in hand. One happens not without the other.
In Dry Land, on the other hand, there are no oppressive institutions holding these girls back. There is no lack of available knowledge, nor any persecuting federal judge striking down education as obscene.
In Dry Land what oppresses is far more devious and subject to controversy, for what oppresses is the far more difficult objective of Sanger’s lifelong project: the movement toward self-knowledge.
In other words, access to birth control or access to sex education is far more easily accomplished than access to the mysteries of the self in a culture gone sexually liberated.
Ester, played by the same Yakima Rich, has joined the high school swim team. Unlike the other girls, however, Ester is a true athlete with dreams of a college scholarship. Ms. Rich gives Ester sternness and a fierce competitiveness, nothing like the innocence of Lucy in What Every Girl Should Know.
She befriends, or thinks she befriends, Amy, played by the same Emily Whitworth, a tough girl with a penchant for “sluttiness”. Or so it seems. Ms. Whitworth gives Amy a poser’s edge for cruelty.
And then there’s Reba, played by the same Thais Menendez. Now, a vamp, Ms. Menendez looks nothing like she did one hundred years earlier. No longer streetwise; now, she’s boy-crazy.
The problem these girls face is that, unlike the lanes they swim in, which are all clearly marked to avoid obstacles, in the real world the swimming is all free-style and the lanes are nothing but the open sea.
It always helps to have a buoy or a companion in such circumstances, and that indeed is at the play’s focal point: the search for both, or either, cannot be denied.
Although the play occasionally swerves into the unnecessary, particularly near the end, its force cannot be diminished. In a world increasingly beset by extremist behaviors, both sexual and otherwise, the quest for friendship and belonging cannot be undervalued.
And a bit of self-knowledge goes a long way toward survival when an undertow strides.
The simple sets and effective lights and costumes were designed by Paige Hathaway, Sarah Tundermann, and Heather Lockhard, respectively. Sound was eerily produced by Sarah O’Halloran.
Running Time for each play: 90 minutes, without an intermission.
What Every Girl Should Know & Dry Land play in rep through April 15, 2017, at Forum Theatre, performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (301) 588-8270, or purchase them online.