By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE
What Every Girl Should Know is a modern look at an age-old problem. Monica Byrne’s play at Triangle Productions is based on the early feminist and reproductive rights activist Margaret Sanger’s pamphleteering, and puts faces and dresses to the young women who struggled with the issues of sexuality in their time. Life in Byrne’s play becomes a lit-up, psychic drama, with hues of the natural forces that overcome a small group of girls living in a Catholic reformatory.
The girls have haunted pasts and are victims of their time, both emotionally and economically. They are caught between impending womanhood in the early 20th century and the door of childhood, which is closing behind them: St. Mary’s Reformatory is almost like a slumber party each night. The girls appear onstage undressing and getting ready for bed in the first few minutes. They fantasize about boys and sex, and indulge in some minor sins along the way. Their girlish imaginations take them on wild rides, with sex as an escape. At the reformatory they work in the laundry, where conditions were horrendous even for the time: it was akin to slavery, and many girls fell ill or died in the cheap workplaces. What Every Girl Should Know is a critique of the Church and how pervasively a belief system, when corrupt, takes advantage of faith.
Theresa (Emma Bridges) has the most wild of dreams, maybe because she’s lived a bit more than the others. She’d like to fill trunks and travel on steam ships across the globe. Her soft features hide a femme fatale in the works; she’s the Secretary of Imagination for the ragtag ensemble. Anne (Sasha Belle Neufeld) is the opposite. Life has been cruel and unkind to her, and she’s cold to the touch: her M.O. is made of pure defensive tackles. Lucy (Katie Dessin) is the sweetheart of the bunch, still holding on to hope. Lydia Fleming’s Joan is much like her French namesake, an innocent warrior who fights back at the world. She’s learned a thing or two from her mother, who was sent to prison for handing out Sanger pamphlets and advocating for what was neatly coined at the time “family planning.”
As the group’s feral nature rises to the surface, Margaret Sanger becomes their de facto heroine, saint, rebellious idol. They make pagan motions to appease her with an orange, a sip of forbidden absinthe, dance, and physical pleasure. The group is carried away into the other, a semi-conscious Simone de Beauvoir carnival ride into the unknown places of their human stains. What they do not know is that they have been at sea for a long time, and this private adventure is just a safer passage than the reality of the exploitation of their every minute.
Director Donald Horn makes an artful cyclic ballet of their ignorance, pain and coming-of-age. He matches contemporary music to their ecstatic movements toward a free identity. Triangle’s 26th season celebrates women who defied convention and made a new path, and What Every Girl Should Know neatly fits the theme. It’s a controversial portrait of the younger set who, for the most part, are still unnamed, lost to memory, but who paved a way for the suffragettes and bra-burning feminists to come.
Triangle Productions’ What Every Girl Should Know continues thought February 27 at The Sanctuary. Ticket and schedule information here.