Rebecca Gilman’s new play Twilight Bowl, onstage in the Hemsley Theatre at UW-Madison through April 28, is probably going to look familiar to area audiences. That’s because the play is about us.
Set in the fictional small town of Reynolds, Wisconsin, somewhere in Green County, it feels like many communities of less than 5,000 in the state. Bars, schools, churches and bowling alleys separate “town” from the surrounding farmland. There are struggling, family-owned businesses here, as well as families trying to cope with the changing economy and a lack of job opportunities. There are also “big city problems” — alcoholism, poverty, drug abuse, domestic violence and homelessness — that need to be addressed, even in this rural hamlet.
There are also five young women who are on the brink of new lives; some will leave to explore the world outside their insular upbringing. And others, afraid of change or without the means to move on, will stay and perhaps achieve more modest goals. We meet them at the Twilight Bowl, a dated but inviting hangout and workplace that feels like a relic from the 1960s. The neon sign stands out on Main Street, and the place probably sells just enough beer to stay open, since league nights are attracting fewer bowlers each year. (Spot-on scenic design by Adrianna White.)
The perky blonde sitting at the bar is Sam (Bri Hunter). She is off to college at Ohio State on a bowling scholarship. By contrast, her tattooed cousin Jaycee (Erika K. Marks) is headed to prison, after helping her father illegally obtain and sell prescription drugs. The naive and tender hearted Charlene (Zhiyun Zhao) is active in her church and works as a nurse’s aide at a retirement home. Meanwhile, the equally practical and cynical Brielle (Alexandria Chapes) and Clarice (Shasparay Lighteard) are struggling with their finances, unsure if college is worth the massive debt and wishing their minimum-wage jobs got them further.
Then into their safe, personal club house of the Twilight Bowl, comes an outsider — Sam’s college friend, Maddy (Erin Wathen), whose Chicago North Shore attitudes are as out of place as her white quilted winter jacket, matching skirt and fur-trimmed white boots. (Costume design by Shannon Heibler.) Claiming that she understands the people of Reynolds and the desperation of rural America because she studied it in a cultural anthropology class, Maddy is tone deaf to the complexities of the young women’s lives. And she is certainly no better at navigating her 20s, despite her money, therapy and cosmopolitan upbringing.
As the stories unfold over spring breaks and summer visits during the next several years, we see how those with a head start — stable families, money and easy access to higher education — make the same bad decisions as their less-privileged counterparts, but with vastly different consequences. We also see how the young women gradually drift apart into social spheres that have less tolerance or understanding of one another, though they were fast friends just months before. Around the bowling pin-shaped table, the 20-somethings drink beer and debate whether luck, hard work or ambition is the key to their future and wonder how much power any of them really has to determine their fate. As audience members, we wonder that too.
A true ensemble piece, the cast is strong across the board. Special kudos to go Erin Wathen for unearthing the humanity in the self-centered, spoiled character of Maddy, and to Erika K. Marks for selling the complete transformation of Jaycee, who begins the play as a drug addicted badass and ends as a church-going straight arrow, trying to adhere to the requirements of her parole.
Although the play feels talky and static at times, director Jessica Fisch works to keep the storytelling balanced. She creates a nice rhythm for the action so each scene feels like a regular day at the Twilight Bowl, even though most characters have a moment of epiphany there. Unfortunately the ending feels abrupt, leaving several characters’ journeys incomplete. A “slice of life” story, the audience is asked to make many connections between the characters after the final bows.
Twilight Bowl was commissioned as part of the Big Ten Theatre Consortium New Play Initiative, which set out to bring new work by outstanding American female playwrights to college stages. The goal is to provide college drama programs with plays that offer complex, age-appropriate roles for their students. Twilight Bowl fits the bill on all accounts. Let’s hope that other stages across the Midwest will hold similarly successful productions.