“The Tall Girls” produced by Washington Ensemble Theatre

UnknownAt a desolate railroad stop in a no-hope prairie town during the dry days of the Dust Bowl, young Jean waits in loneliness for someone to pick her up. Almeda at whose house Jean will live shows up late, dirty and unpleasant. She never asked for this visitor. Things don’t bode well for either of them, or for anyone else in this godforsaken prairie town.

But then a basketball enters the picture along with a new male teacher (well played by Ali Mohamed El-Gasseir) who agrees to be the basketball coach for a group of girls in love with the game. They form a team and, because they are short one player, they strong arm Jean into joining it.

Directed by Kelly Kitchins, the acting and staging work well to capture the deadening reality of life in the town of Poor Prairie as laid out by playwright Meg Mioshnik. But the play is about much more than life in the 1930s and girls’ basketball. It raises numerous issues about women’s place in society and the roles they must assume or are forced to assume. These issues continue to have relevance.

Leah Salcido Pfenning as Jean captures well the despondency of a girl discarded by her mother and forced to face her own tragedy alone. Competitive Almeda (Bailie Breaux) morphs from self centered brat to team player. Pretty Hannah Ruwe as Lurlene preens about the stage with certainty that beauty guarantees success and without it she’s nothing.

Chelsea Callahan as Inez accepts the limited future life offers a young farm woman, and Adria Lamorticella is Puppy, a sweet thing dominated by a mother who, lacking real power in society, manipulates and destroys opportunities for others. Through basketball these dead-end girls learn teamwork and dare to believe that they can achieve, that they can get good enough to be invited to the state championships.

Basketball offers hope in a place and at a time when optimism is almost impossible, especially for girls. It teaches good sportsmanship, offers the thrill of the win, and most of all it allows for dreams. But these are women, and this is the Depression on the prairie. Here such dreams rarely come true.

Through May 18, produced by Washington Ensemble Theatre at 12th Avenue Arts Theatre, 1620 12th Ave., (206 325-5105 or www.washingtonensemble.org).

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