Who would have thought that parents as diverse as A League of Their Own and A Soldier's Play could give birth to anything? Yet Layon Gray's play The Girls of Summer, the Los Angeles African American Repertory Company production of which is being presented at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, has just such a lineage. Dealing with both an all-female baseball team like Penny Marshall's 1991 historical-sports screen comedy and a messily uncertain murder like Charles Fuller's bracing 1981 Off-Broadway play, The Girls of Summer touches on the good in both but mines the best from neither.
Centering on an investigation into the murder of the all-black team's little-liked and abusive coach, the story tests not only your abilities to follow treacherous turns of plot but to do so in a hostile temporal environment. To wit: A young reporter asks an elderly janitor questions about the 1945 murder; his interviewee recalls the events surrounding it, which involved another young reporter asking questions about the murder and its cover-up; those questions lead team members to remember (or invent?) details about situations that may themselves contain real or imaginary flashbacks.
All this twisting with time and perception is intended to highlight the work's "oral history" context, that you can never believe anything you hear. But it draws attention away from a straightforward, potentially compelling story, populated with characters you'd almost certainly love if you got a chance to know them. There's just not enough time for that: A program note states that the play was edited down to 90 minutes to conform with the Festival's time requirements, but the endless layers of storytelling frames would unnecessarily suck up too many minutes in a version of any length.
Even so, Ilca Andrade, as an emotional light-skinned girl, and Alicia Jordan, as the most critical link between fiction and the truth, turn in performances that resonate with the heartfelt agony of being in on lies you never wanted to tell. Both Baadja Lynn Odums, as the odious coach with lofty goals for her girls, and Staci Ashley, as the tomboyish unofficial leader of the team who challenges her at every turn, project the requisite authority. And Tiffany Phillips and Vertina Love deliver intensely watchable performances as (respectively) the team's sexpot and the mentally challenged trainer who knows more than she lets on.
Gray's direction has an energy, efficiency, and fluidity that his writing, at least presented here, too often lacks, and that does help make the play's mounting complexities easier to swallow. But whether The Girls of Summer, which won a 2006 NAACP Award for Best Play, is as fuzzily focused as it is because of its writing or its editing, it remains an idea that strikes out more often than it hits its desired home run.
The Girls of Summer