The Girls of Summer
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
July 20, 2006
Emotion overpowers storytelling in The Girls of Summer, an earnest but trite new drama that owes more than a debt of gratitude to Charles Fuller's 1981 drama, A Soldier's Play. Layon Gray's play mimics Fuller's in almost every way except setting: this time the action concerns an all-black female baseball team in 1945 Illinois instead of an all-black company at a 1940s Louisiana Army base. One can't fault Gray for his good taste in borrowing liberally from his predecessor. But, anyone who's familiar with Fuller's landmark drama will know exactly where The Girls of Summer is going as soon as it starts.
But those theatergoers who don't know A Soldier's Play may be in luck. Such was the case with my companion who joined me the night I attended The Girls of Summer, and got a lot more out of it than I did. She was immediately taken with the story, which examines the events surrounding the mysterious death of the baseball team's manager, Coach Hicks. One by one, the members of the team are interviewed by Peter James, an intrepid, young journalism student (inexplicably sent by the Chicago Tribune to cover the story) who senses that there's more to this story than everyone's telling. Sure enough, before long James discovers that the clubhouse is a hive of swarming resentment for the abusive, lascivious Hicks, and that guilt could be cast in several possible directions.
Despite the derivative nature of the script, The Girls of Summer has the potential to be gripping (and for some, like my companion, it is). But, for me, the company's almost uniform lack of proficiency torpedoes any chance the play might have. Gray (who also doubles as director and co-star) seems more intent on making an impression than telling a story, which results in some implausible scenarios (why does one player remain on the team after Hicks chokes her with a baseball bat?), and some sloppy direction (the climactic scene contains so much unabashed histrionics it feels as if Gray let the actors stage it themselves). The actors portraying the ballplayers all have a lot of energy, but since none of them looks like she knows how to swing or hold a baseball bat, it's hard to take them seriously. Only Baadja Lynn Odums comes off well, giving a convincing performance as the scary Hicks.
I wish I had better things to report about The Girls of Summer, because I really wanted to like it. Gray certainly doesn't lack ambition, but he needs to develop his own voice more before he tries to emulate anyone else's.