Anyone who knows the work of playwright Joshua Conkel knows that he has two obsessions: podunk small towns, and twisted coming-of-age stories. He played them to great effect in MilkMilkLemonade, a comedy about an eleven-year-old gay boy trapped on a chicken farm with a repressive, cancer-stricken nanna. His latest play, The Chalk Boy, is more sinister and confusing, probably because Conkel ventured into foreign terrain: the world of teenage girls. The characters who populate Chalk Boy are less well-rounded than Emory, the fabulous protagonist of MilkMilk. Sometimes vapid, often capricious, and rarely likeable, they become ciphers in the world that Conkel created, used merely to ventriloquize the playwright’s thoughts on small town America. Luckily, director Ben Randle found four talented actresses to overcome the script’s deficiencies and animate the regional premiere at Impact Theatre.
Intentional or not, Conkel’s decision to exploit his characters is obvious from the opening scene of the play, when Lauren (Maria Giere Marquis) and Trisha (Chris Quintos) introduce the town of Clear Creek to their audience. Packed with fast-food eateries, parochial churches, and the occasional big-box retailer, it’s as flat and bland as the chalkboards that line Anne Kendall’s spare, imaginative set. “‘Creek’… is kind of a misnomer,” Lauren says, explaining that the town has dark, sordid secrets bubbling beneath its “banal” exterior. Already, she’s using words that sound too elevated for a teenage girl, and are evidently the playwright’s rather than her own. It happens again and again throughout the play — when slutty goth chick Penelope (Luisa Frasconi) waxes philosophical, and talks about “essential” aspects of human nature; when Breanna (Caitlyn Tella) cleanly addresses — and resolves — her unrequited crush on Penelope; when Laura discusses faith and predestination; when Penelope’s aerobics instructor mom (also played by Giere Marquis) offers a cynical but too-intelligent read on relationships: “I wish I could tell you that you don’t have to manipulate people to make them stay with you.”
In other words, the script is almost too smart for its own good, but not in the same laugh-out-loud, campy way as MilkMilk. Rather, this one is formidably creepy. The “chalk boy” of the title is actually Jeff Chalk, formerly the high school heartthrob of Clear Creek, who is abducted at the beginning of the play, and never seen — except in dream form. The whole play is a tick-tock of the kidnapping, as seen through the eyes of the four girls. It’s also, of course, about the girls’ relationships with each other, their insecurities, their difficulty coping with small-town politics and Christianity, and their internalized homophobia. There are no actual men in the play, but men nonetheless prevail as an abstract concept. At one point, one of the characters — I won’t say who, because it would spoil things — tries to explain the chalk boy kidnapping in terms of white-male disempowerment, which seems like a weird message to foist on a play that’s supposed to be about adolescent girls.
Although the social dimensions of the play seem tacked-on, it still manages to be entertaining throughout, and that’s mostly owing to the actresses. They’re simply fantastic. Frasconi, who is too-often burdened with cute, peppy, squealy-girl roles, takes an interesting turn here by playing a girl whose black eyeliner and fishnet stockings speak volumes about her interior world. As Penelope, she balances meanness, fragility, and ennui, creating a full-fledged person from what might have been a type. Giere Marquis shows remarkable poise as Clear Creek’s most irritating goody two-shoes — she’s a spokesperson for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Demure, delicate Tella is believable as the play’s closet lesbian, mostly because of the awkward way she touches Penelope, and her tenor-range voice (a serviceable, albeit stereotypical signifier). Quintos stands out the most, playing the animated, competitive Trisha. She’s the best at juicing lines for laughs and putting her entire body into every line. Her imitation of the girls’ matronly high school English teacher is hysterical.
Thus, the actresses create a palpable girls’ world, filling in gaps that Conkel apparently didn’t see. They understand the casual cruelty of teenage girls, and the apprehensions, and the tendency to organize themselves in ever-shifting hierarchies: leader, follower, victim. Kendall’s set, Jax Steager’s uncanny lighting design (which includes surreal elements, like the fish shadows that swim over Breanna and Penelope when they’re in bed together), and Colin Trevor’s tense, eerie soundscapes all help enhance this play and convey things about the characters’ that they can’t articulate themselves (unless, of course, Conkel does it for them). The execution is brilliant, and in many ways, Chalk Boy overcomes the problems inherent in its conception.