FLASHES OF YOUTH: ‘The Diary Play’ captures growth in the mundane and heavy situations of teenage girls
The beauty of a gal’s diary is in its timeline: It always captures unadulterated innocence blossoming into adulthood, wherein everyday problems—some only surface issues, others cut deep—seep in without the fundamental maturity to always handle them appropriately. It’s the secrecy of sharing these stories that capitulate to the real world, but their importance lies in how they connect humans to infinite growing pains.
Meet Elizabeth (Meagan Golden), Susanne (Jayden Wingate), Pam (Vivian Long-Sires), and Galina (Rachel Smith). The four teenagers, 14-16, are growing up in different parts of the world, undergoing various problems that challenge their character but also help mold it. Elizabeth is a freshman in high school in love with Ben, and focuses all her entries in securing his eye and eventually love. Susanne is attending an arts school rather than normal high school but is facing the crossroads where pursuing her passion means sacrificing her belief system toward God and religion. Pam is dealing with gossipy small-town life in the South, while Galina is in Turkmenistan grappling over the detrimental aftermath of being raped.
While their issues range from mundane to heavy, all the stories etch out revelations on a page to help awaken, identify and work through their emotions: humiliation, abandonment, anxiety, fear, apathy, empathy, competition, heartbreak. It’s all there for the taking. Perhaps the most compelling part of the entries are their rawness; the pages literally are ripped from diaries that exist across the ages, from the ‘70s to 80’s to ‘90s to now, as gathered from director and Mouth of Babes (MoB) theatre company founder Trey Morehouse and UNCW theatre department’s Dr. Charles Grimes. “The Diary Play” succeeds because it reveals relatable pieces of emotion and humanness, though particularly aimed at young women, really applicable to all people.
Golden as the goo-goo eyed Elizabeth brings a vivacious youthfulness to the stage that reminds me very much of my own childhood—specifically falling in love for the first time. The obsession over who that person interacts with, how he interacts with them, compared to how he treats her, is the gauge for their roller coaster of emotions. It’s all very “high school,” in that they like each other one minute and the next they don’t—without reason. The fireworks of a first kiss is so perfectly enacted here—even without one ounce of touching taking place—I saw flashes of my own youth race before me unexpectedly. Golden’s wide-eye innocence is perfectly played, from her over-emoting sadness to her overzealous happiness, the latter of which brings out a lot of laughter from the audience.
Wingate plays the only 16-year-old I know facing an existential crisis: She can’t decide to act against or hold onto her faith—because apparently the two cannot mutually exist. Wingate is very precocious, very anxious, and extremely devoted at the onset of the play. When she’s in the grips of her character as one who hangs onto values that don’t suit her anymore, the struggle, the tension, is real. We as an audience see the breakthrough coming, and it’s painful watching her push against it. Yet, when she does set herself free and learn to think for herself, there’s an invaluable freedom that enlightens the script. That it’s riddled with what-ifs surrounding mental illness comes across as a throw-away; the text there could be a little bolder and fleshed-out.
Long-Sires brings a very strong Southern dialect and drawl to Pam. At first I was put off by it, but as the show evolved, we also saw her character slowly build in every scene, which made her carefully chosen words and drawn-out syllables a literal parallel to her life. There was no fast-paced need to get from point A to point B, whether in literal terms of time and place or figurative terms as in her personal growth. I did love her ease at transitioning timelines, since, from what I could gather, she was mainly the only character set in a 30-year age difference from her counterparts. The script’s mention of timed events, like a Peter Frampton concert or the attendance of the movie “Alien,” tells us so. Long-Sires’ diary entries were the most tedious: peppered with tittle-tattle of other people’s lives that refrained from divulging the inner being of Pam most of the time. It wasn’t until the end, when she ends up in college, and what we can assume is in a controlling, emotionally manipulative relationship, she opens up with more depth. I wish we would have seen it earlier with her character; alas, we all grow differently.
Smith as Galina is the most interesting of the batch—mainly because the weight of problems she carries doesn’t hold a candle to any of the others. She is the walking equivalent of someone who needs to have a diary to exorcise the demons that haunt her so. We meet her as she is trying to deal with rape—lifting a veil of shame, ineptitude, even suicide, and attempting to gain back her place in a world of light. We hear and see her talk about her lack of worth, her desire to run to America, away from reminders of a culture that brings so much heat with it as a woman living in a place where women’s rights are basically nil. Smith is captivating; the emotion of what she reads and emotes in her passages carry the show to greater heights. It never feels forced or unbelievable. To be so young, Smith already is carrying the chops of a seasoned actress on her shoulders.
The script itself is handled well in that the four ladies’ diary entries intertwine with one word or use of a single prop to help the transition between scenes. It connects them, even though they’re divided by miles, cultures, and inevitable problems life throws their way. They also often get to challenge their acting skills by taking on various people in the diary entries: a professor from the arts school; Ben, the jock and love interest of Elizabeth; and the American suitor who Galina falls for and finds a way out of hopelessness and again into a trustworthy place with men.
The power of a play often doesn’t come in overproduction or design, but from character portrayals and simple words. These four ladies, though young, are doing a superb job showing us as much is true. Though the fire alarm went off at Front Street Theatre last Friday, preventing the audience from seeing the end of the play, folks can check out MoB’s second run at Cameron Art Museum this weekend only.