The Chalk Boy, perhaps more than any other play in recent memory, treats teenage girls as more than caricatures. Its characters are all human beings with human problems, whose flaws are just as tragic as those of characters from Chekhov, Caryl Churchill, or Ibsen. Their identity crises and their views on religion, destiny, and hope touch the same themes that have been touched by thinkers far removed from small town America. Two of the girls resort to witchcraft for the same reason people have been resorting to religion, drugs, art, or any other form of escape for as long as there’s been civilization: being alive is too painful without some sort of outlet.
Of course, all that’s in the undercurrent of what is in actuality a very funny play. The darker implications of the story are hidden in a black box of teen girl slang, with “kisses, bitches” and enough “bitches” “sluts” and “ho-bags” to convince you that you’re in high school all over again. Linguists argue that the popular bitchy middle- and high-school girls are the origins of new developments in American English, and while I’m too far removed from this period to say if playwright/director Joshua Conkel’s catalog of slang is completely accurate, he’s certainly developed a deftly-tuned ear for the meter and intensity of teen girl speak.
Marguerite French and Mary Catherine Donnelly narrate the play (they’re, what do you call it…omniscient!) as Trisha Sorensen and Lauren Radley, leaders of the Christian Varsity Youth, giving a presentation and hoping you’ll drink the orangeade they made. Both actors provide the comical framework and help establish a brilliant use of the limited Under St. Marks venue. They also take on any other role that is needed in a pinch, and while the fourth-wall breaking is somewhat too lackadaisical for my liking, it does provide Conkel with a number of tools for his storytelling. The play is somber, but almost always funny; its presentation is adolescent, but still intellectually challenging.
Another of The Chalk Boy’s greatest strengths is the unflinching honesty and bleakness it ascribes to small town America. Clear Creek, Washington is “one of those towns,” Conkel puts it – and as a native of one of those towns himself, his insights into the utter despair that grips these small towns is spot on. The play also highlights how blind most theater audiences—and New York audiences in particular—can often be to how the other half of America lives.
The play centers around the presumed abduction of a relatively popular boy named Jeffrey Chalk, who has gone missing and is presumed dead. This has been a problem with Clear Creek in the past and will continue to be. A curfew is instated, mothers and teachers become paranoid, and girls who are in love with Jeffrey start behaving even more nastily than they did before.
Chalk’s disappearance is the main motivation allowing the girls to feel comfortable asserting their own feelings about life, love, spirituality, and all that blah blah blah. Penny Lauder (Jennifer Harder) is perhaps the most complete character in the play; she experiences a false pregnancy from Jeff but refuses to believe it's false, with the same intensity and obvious futility with which she refuses to believe that Jeff is dead (futility is a recurring theme here). She sees herself as either unlucky, unredeemable, or just plain unlovable, destined to follow in the footsteps of her trailer-trash mother who also had a teen pregnancy. Her vaguely creepy, obviously confused friend Breanna (Kate Huisentruit), future Smith College material, tries to express love and affection for Penny that she knows can never truly be reciprocated until she gets out of this shit town.
The actors often struggle with the wide-ranging, constantly shifting emotional baggage of the play, both explicit and implicit. Conkel makes jokes about his characters’ limited vocabulary, yet they sometimes take on large themes in language too astute for a fifteen-year-old. But perfect consistency was a goal that Conkel was rightly willing to overlook with The Chalk Boy for the larger pursuit of taking the small-town American teen girl into existential territory, and his results are almost always grippingly poignant. You’ll more readily drink the comedic orangeade during the play, but you’ll leave it with a much deeper affliction.
The Chalk Boy, written and directed by Joshua Conkel. Starring Jennifer Harder (Penny Lauder), Marguerite French (Trisha Sorensen and others), Kate Huisentruit (Breanna Stark), and Mary Catherine Donnelly (Lauren Radley and others). Photo by John Alexander.
The Chalk Boy runs through September 20 at the Under St. Marks theater. Tickets can be purchased here.