by SOPHIE KERMAN
As a former sixteen-year-old prep school student from the New York metropolitan area, I might have a skewed perspective on The Edge of Our Bodies, Adam Rapp‘s (almost) one-woman play about a sixteen-year-old prep school student from the New York metropolitan area. Unlike most of the Guthrie Theater‘s Minnesotan audience, I can reminisce about my own Metro-North rides into Grand Central Station, and my sympathy for the play’s protagonist springs from my personal experience of having once also been a teenage actor/writer who characterized the world with all-too-poetic similes. But while I am extremely thankful that this play – which involves some very bad decisions and a teenage pregnancy – is not about me, I do wonder about its wider appeal to audiences unfamiliar with theater or with the play’s East Coast sensibility.
Bernadette’s train trip takes her from her New England boarding school to Brooklyn, where she anticipates announcing to her boyfriend that she’s pregnant. A significant portion of this 85-minute play is read from Bernadette’s journal – a theatrical device which highlights Ali Rose Dachis‘s ability to make a text come alive, but which also allows playwright Adam Rapp to indulge in some questionable over-writing. An author of young adult literature himself, Rapp clearly has a strong grasp on the stylistic pitfalls of smart teen writers – for instance, arbitrarily specifying brand names (e.g. “I light the Lucky Strike cigarettes with a Bic lighter”) and constructing obscure similes (“hanging over his head like a dinner plate glued to the wall”).
Whether this writing style is an asset or a detriment to the play depends on whether or not you can appreciate the voice of a precocious sixteen-year-old girl (and if you can’t, then a solo play about a teenage girl was probably never for you). Despite a theatrical resumé that puts her well past sixteen years old, Dachis clearly and charismatically embodies Bernadette’s adolescent vacillations between veiled insecurity and forced confidence.
In terms of sheer acting prowess, both Dachis and Bernadette herself are forces to be reckoned with. It soon becomes clear that not only is Bernie auditioning for a role in Jean Genet’s The Maids, she is also keenly aware that she is reading her journal for an audience. (As with many teenagers, Bernie is just as concerned about the way she presents herself as about confronting her actual problems.) But while The Maids serves as an interesting touchstone for those who are already familiar with it, the script’s references to it are not going to make much sense for those not in the know.
In another device meant to expose the theatrical underpinnings of Bernie’s story, a maintenance man (the sublimely understated Steve Sweere) methodically carts away all of the furniture on stage – clearly cuing us into that fact that Bernie is actually sitting on stage after the last performance of her school play. Yet despite all of the play’s thematic emphasis on the sometimes self-deceptive roles we enact, we never quite get a sense of Bernie’s motivations for telling her story. How much of her performance is for herself, and how much for show? This may be a flaw in the script or an interpretive oversight on the part of the director, Benjamin McGovern (who otherwise has made smart choices in shaping the play, starting from the very moment the audience enters the theater), but either way, this lack of thematic consistency makes for an unsatisfying ending.
The Edge of Our Bodies is an interesting piece that showcases Dachis’s talents admirably. What I fear is that the relative obscurity of its references will lead most audiences to see the play as a coming-of-age piece (as many reviewers did when the play debuted this past March at the 2011 Humana Festival) rather than as a look at the way we perceive and act out the roles of adulthood.