Review: “Twilight Bowl”

Anne Thompson (Sharlene), Heather Chrisler (Jaycee), Hayley Burgess (Clarice) and Becca Savoy (Sam) in the world premiere of “Twilight Bowl.” (Photo by Liz Lauren)

RECOMMENDED

Where: Goodman Theatre
Owen Theatre,
170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through March 10
Tickets: $10-$45
Phone: 312-443-3800

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

At the end of Rebecca Gilman’s “Twilight Bowl,” Jaycee, a 24-year-old on parole after two years in prison, says, “Because you never know. What life is gonna hold,” After a long pause, Clarice, a friend who hasn’t seen her in some time, replies, “Except…you kinda do.”

That exchange sums up ambivalent issues underlying this coming-of-age tale set in the bar of a family-owned bowling alley in rural Reynolds, Wis., over the course of two years. In 90 minutes, Gilman offers a microcosm of the socio-political concerns of the country, as well as philosophical questions about the relative roles of nature and nurture, chance and choice, in people’s lives. And she does it all with ordinary, mostly working-class characters speaking everyday language that’s often quite funny.

Commissioned by the Big Ten Theatre Consortium of schools whose theater departments saw the need for more plays with roles for women in their 20s, “Twilight Bowl” was originally seen as part of Goodman’s 2017 New Stages Festival. The current premiere reunites director Erica Weiss and the all-female cast; the designers are all women, too.

The dramedy unfolds in five scenes, with parties set two years apart sandwiching events on the night after Thanksgiving six months after the first gathering. Unlike in some of Gilman’s plays, such as “Spinning into Butter” and “Luna Gale,” the action isn’t driven by an urgent problem. Instead, we get slices of the lives of six very different young women who affect each other, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Regina Garcia’s impeccable bar set, replete with bowling memorabilia and garish neon signs, provides an evocative backdrop for discussions that get underway with a going away party for Jaycee (Heather Chrisler), who’s about to start her jail term for selling drugs, something she claims she just did to help her father, who is doing hard time, and escape her alcoholic mother. Tough-talking and vulgar, but scared underneath, she’s a pessimist who has been dealt a bad hand and doesn’t know how to get out of the situation.

At the other end of the small-town-girl spectrum is Jaycee’s cousin, Sam (Becca Savoy), a good high-school student who is about to go to Ohio State on a bowling scholarship and hopes to make the team there. As she later reveals in a monologue—each woman has at least one—she thinks each person is responsible for making her own future.

The other two at the party are Clarice (Hayley Burgess), whose limited horizons include working two jobs and getting her own apartment, and Sharlene (Anne E. Thompson), a devout Christian who doesn’t drink or smoke, enjoys working at an old people’s home, is inclined to see the good in people, and believes that anyone can be saved. She also is highly judgmental, though slow to admit it.

The post-Thanksgiving evening introduces two more women. Brielle (Mary Taylor) is the sympathetic bartender who is generally satisfied with her life and looks forward to a proposal from her boyfriend and move to a nearby town. Maddy (Angela Morris), Sam’s schoolmate, is an entitled, motor-mouthed girl from Winnetka who couldn’t bear going home for Thanksgiving, so invited herself to Sam’s instead. They only recently became friends, because Maddy got herself in trouble and Sam was the only one who’d help her out, a favor she returns with remarkably selfish, self-indulgent behavior. She also clashes with Sharlene, bringing out the latter’s less-forgiving side.

We also learn that Clarice and Sam have tried to visit Jaycee in prison, but the only person she would see was Sharlene. The reasons come out in the final scene, a celebration for Sam who, after setbacks that almost caused her to drop out of college her first year, made the team, which just won the championship. She’s off to a bowling clinic, plans to major in physical therapy, and of the five from Reynolds, is on the most successful track.

But the other revelation here is that Jaycee has managed to turn her life around with Sharlene’s help. We may have mixed feelings and wonder if the sober, subdued woman she’s become is any happier than the angry, screwed-up, defiant one she was before, but her rather sweet, low-key rapprochement with Clarice at the end suggests that she’s at least coming to terms with her life, which is something to be wished for.