“The Tall Girls,” Meg Miroshnik’s lovely, heartbreaking play about five young women in a dead-end Midwest town during the Great Depression, is one of those all-American stories that not only beautifully captures a very specific time and place, but also suggests the inner lives of those with big dreams undermined by countless social obstacles. It is, in the very best sense of the term, an old-fashioned play, with richly developed characters and a tightly woven story. And for its Chicago premiere by Shattered Globe Theatre, director Louis Contey has gathered a perfect, tightly knit ensemble.
‘THE TALL GIRLS’ Highly recommended When: Through Feb. 25 Where: Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Tickets: $35 Info: www.theaterwit.org Run time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, with one intermission
Subtitled “A Play About Playing Basketball,” you might think of “The Tall Girls” as a female variation on “Hoop Dreams” (the 1994 film about two African-American high school students in Chicago, and their hope of becoming professional basketball players). But layer on top of that what it was like for wannabe female athletes in the years long before the arrival of Title IX, the 1972 law that stated: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” And then think about the health care threats that might soon be facing women again, although this is very much a personal play as opposed to a political screed.
When Jean, a womanly 16-year old (played by Angie Shriner, who perfectly captures the stolid, world weary quality of her character), arrives by train and takes a look around the town where she will be living, she immediately dubs the place “Gravetown.” She has been sent from the East, where her mother’s boyfriend is clearly a lout, and her job will be to care for her cousin, Almeda (a firebrand turn by Tracey Green), a 14-year-old tomboy with a temper, as well as a passion to play basketball. But before she even meets Almeda, Jean encounters Haunt Johnny (Joseph Wiens, in just the latest of his many smart, subtly charismatic performances). He has just returned to his bleak hometown after many years, with a basketball in a sack, and the hope of starting over.
Before long, Jean also meets 17-year-old Inez (the gently charismatic Tina Munoz Pandya), the strong, kind-hearted member of a large family whose farm is under threat of being confiscated by the local bank; Lurlene (the very funny Christina Gorman), a leggy material girl far more interested in makeup and boys than basketball; and Puppy (the ideally cast Abbey Smith), the petite and proper “innocent” under the thumb of her conservative-minded mother and well-to-do banker father.
To be sure, the young women in “The Tall Girls” are not uniformly driven to get involved in basketball. But they are aware of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the pioneering female athlete, who at the time was making a name in sports history, and challenging traditional ideals of femininity. What’s more, many of the town’s young men have left the place, and the excitement of getting to the downstate championship playoffs becomes a goal for at least some of them.
Before long they look to Johnny — a decent man, though not without demons — to shape them into a winning team, often in spite of themselves. Larger forces are at work, too, for just as ex-First Lady Lou Henry Hoover is advocating for greater participation by women in sports (you will want to read about this fascinating, little-known figure), local politicians and society women are putting the kibosh on such things.
The most remarkable scenes in this production (which features fine design work by Amanda Rozmiarek, Sarah Jo White, Charles Cooper, Christopher Kriz and Jamie Karas), have to do with the actual act of playing the game, shooting the ball and making the basket. As any professional athlete will tell you, things never go as planned, so how this ensemble manages to do all of that, recover from failed free throws, and still stay winningly true to their characters in many moments of improvisation, is hugely impressive. And the tears of camaraderie visible when the cast took its curtain calls were supremely well-earned.
As for Miroshnik, the Minneapolis-bred, Los Angeles-based playwright whose “The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls” was a hit for Trap Door Theatre here in 2015 (and which I sadly missed), she is a writer well worth watching.