by Warren Francke
Recommended Reading for Girls completes a remarkable pairing on the two stages of the Omaha Community Playhouse. While another world premiere, the screwball comedy A Night with the Family, continues on the main stage, Omahan Ellen Struve’s original play runs in the more intimate Howard Drew.
It’s a tribute to the confidence of the Playhouse leadership that they booked two unproven plays, though strong responses to staged readings of Struve’s script gave it momentum. So what has the young mother of two given the world?
A touching, charming, thoughtful and funny play that further delights a reviewer because it can be recommended, not just for girls, but for everyone. And that’s especially appealing in a season that began with an enormously powerful play, August: Osage County, which I found fascinating but knew would offend some of my friends who love theater.
You didn’t have to grow up reading about Heidi, Anne of Green Gables, a Little Princess named Sara or Penny Parker, Girl Detective, to relate to the literary conventions that rule their story-telling expectations. And you don’t have to be a daughter coping with her mother’s cancer to care about Marilynn Saunders (Mary Kelly) and her two daughters, Amy and Jackie, played by Christina Rohling and Laura Leininger.
(Penny, by the way, was Nancy Drew in the earlier version, but the more famous girl detective, is apparently not in the public domain.)
The play begins, not as the stories of the young heroines do, but with the ailing mother curled up on the couch and Rohling’s Amy surprised to see Heidi (Mika Caplan) in her Alpine folk outfit on the stairs. Soon she meets the cheery, upbeat Anne (Olivia Sather) and before long Amy asks, “Is this all of you?”
The set designed by Steven Williams adds a perfect escape route when Amy wants to hide the girls from her ailing mother: they pull down some retractable stairs and climb to the attic. While Amy and Mom talk below, their little feet dangle from the attic opening.
Unlike her mother and Amy, daughter Jackie didn’t grow up reading those stories. But she sees the girls, too, and they add to the discomfort of a very advanced pregnancy that renders her nearly unable to retrieve anything dropped to the floor.
And their presence isn’t the only issue: While Jackie, living nearby, accepts her mother’s unwillingness to take part in an experimental cancer treatment, Amy, having just arrived from losing her job in San Francisco, doesn’t.
And Amy has another problem—blaming her mother for the failure of her relationship with a doctor of Indian descent. Now she must deal with the well-meaning advice of the story-book girls and their literary problem-solving.
It doesn’t help that they want to fit Amy and Jackie into their idea of character roles. They cast Jackie as a housekeeper and Amy, at the advanced age of 32, as a “spinster.”
Detective Penny (Shannon Jackson) always hopes to find a mystery to solve, so when the mother disappears she searches for a hidden passageway. At one point, she’s sure Amy is the villain and later declares her innocent.
Meanwhile, the wonderful Olivia Sather has Anne of Green Gables offering both optimism and criticism. When Amy takes a verbal shot at her red hair, not to mention the pigtails and the part in the middle, Anne declares her “a despicable old shrew.”
Amy becomes frustrated with her mother missing and the girls spouting story lines. She questions the stories she so loved as a child and even decides angrily that Heidi’s grandfather “was an asshole.”
Since Heidi speaks only German, the Little Princess (Amy Schweid) must translate “grossvatter” and the rest. By far my largest complaint with a play that I adored from the first staged reading involved these two heroines.
Heidi speaks in soft-spoken German which the Princess repeats with an accent that was often hard to understand. That meant listening to two versions of dialogue, neither of which was always audible.
And the casting of Schweid, whom I’ve thoroughly enjoyed in many roles, seemed a choice by director Amy Lane based on her appearance in the staged readings. While Jackson and Sather successfully portrayed much younger characters, it didn’t seem to work for Schweid.
The four young heroines, by the way, share a common absence in their story-book upbringing, but if you don’t know their history, it’s better you discover it by seeing this wonderful play.
Recommended Reading for Girls runs through June 2 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, on the Howard Drew Stage of the Omaha Community Playhouse, 6915 Cass St. Tickets are $35, $21 students. Call 402.553.0800 or visit omahaplayhouse.org.