For all intents and purposes, the heroines of Meg Miroshnik’s The Tall Girls are not girls at all. Faced by the gravity of their sex and looming adulthood during the bleak Dust Bowl era, these athletes have to be nimble enough to forego childhood.
In rural Oklahoma, we meet five young women vying to play ball. Jean (Leah Salcido Pfenning) calls Poor Prairie her “grave town” when she arrives at its train station. Almost 16, exceptionally tall and dressed older than she should be, she’s been sent by her family to help raise cousin Almeda (Bailie Breaux). “Al,” just a year younger, clothed in dirt and overalls, is a classic wild child. Before meeting future teammates Inez, Puppy, and Lurlene, Jean encounters the slightly smarmy Haunt Johnny (Ali Mohamed el-Gasseir), returning home with a fresh basketball and a dubious past.
Al and her best friends idolize Babe’s Ballers, a local women’s basketball league. In a series of all-too-convenient coincidences, the five form a team of their own, with Johnny as their coach (and arithmetic teacher). Jean’s predilection for numbers, her height, and Johnny’s affection make her a prime candidate for point guard—and Al’s jealousy.
This is Washington Ensemble’s second production of a Miroshnik play, following 2012’s The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, whose protagonists hustled to survive in Putin’s harsh new kleptocracy. What’s the connection? In desolate Poor Prairie, the odds are also stacked against women; and the team is under threat of being disbanded by First Lady Hoover’s “Committee on Play.” (Sports supposedly threaten the reproductive health of young women—all that jumping up and down, you see.) Director Kelly Kitchens writes in the playbill of “the cost of mortgaging your hopes for a meal ticket,” which is a little vague and a little off, because these girls’ hopes and meal tickets are one and the same. I think Miroshnik is more after the time-agnostic sense of sacrificing your hopes for duty. Yet Tall Girls seems to be about more than what’s being delivered in this production. Though more starkly realistic than Fairytale Lives, Miroshnik’s text lacks credibility: basketball is here a pipe dream for most of these characters—unless fatalism is her point here.
On the final scoreboard, The Tall Girls boasts a powerful young cast with great onstage rapport. The character interactions are poignant, if rushed, in an engaging drama that’s sometimes too fast-paced for its own good. (Only Jean registers as a full-fledged character, while the rest seem more like sketches.) Cameron Irwin’s simple, provocative set is complete with a basketball hoop incorporated into the drama. It’s a symbol of hope and a source of tension as these women line up to take free throws that really may determine their future beyond Poor Prairie.
THE TALL GIRLS 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., washingtonensemble.org. $15–$25. 7:30 p.m. Thurs.–Mon. Ends May 18.