American Girls might be the antidote to Girls Only, a giggly, anodyne and essentially contentless production based on the teenage diaries of its two creators: never mean, never disconcerting, never surprising — the kind of show you take in when you crave drinks with your girlfriends and don’t have the energy to think. So naturally, it was popular when it debuted in Denver seven years ago, and went on to play in other cities around the country. Hilary Bettis’s American Girls, now showing at the Edge, proves that while teenagers may be clueless and silly, with sparkly barrettes in their hair and fan posters on their bedroom walls, they also have more complexity: more nastiness, genuine caring, sorrow and joy. Teenage brains aren’t fully formed; they’re fluid, and emotions can change with breathless speed. The words of adults sink into a young soul — for good or ill — and shape the future.
Fourteen-year-old Amanda and Katie live in two worlds — both equally misleading and destructive. There’s the shiny media world of rock stars, actors, dazzling celebrities on television talk shows, models pouting from magazine covers: These influence the girls’ notions of who they should be and what’s worth striving for. Both — but especially Amanda — crave the fame they believe will make them popular. The second world is that of evangelical Christianity: The pastor of their small Iowa town instills in them both the longing to be virtuous and the belief that any slip or betrayal can be forgiven with a simple apology to Jesus.
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The girls decide to enter a dance contest that they imagine is similar to Dancing With the Stars or So You Think You Can Dance. It supposedly offers the winner an interview with a Hollywood talent scout and a chance at stardom. They practice their routine and lie about their ages to get in. But the portal they’ve passed through leads not to fame, but to a seedy world of porn and sexploitation beyond their immature comprehension. Armed only with Pastor Jim’s homilies, how will they cope with the knowledge of what they experienced there? The story unfolds in brief scenes between the girls, interspersed with Pastor Jim’s sermons and — since Amanda loves recording her life — evocative video segments. The script isn’t perfect; sometimes the sermon device feels repetitive, even though the actual speeches are well written. But it is funny, original and thoughtful, and Bettis clearly has a deep understanding of teenagers.
Director Angela Astle has staged a finely tuned, expressive production. The set, by Justin Lane, is both eloquent and elegant; El Armstrong’s videos are first-rate, particularly the Oprah-style talk show he introduces satirically with soft-focus, flowing, Hallmark Card-style images. But a production lives or dies by the acting, and the acting here is very good. There’s Paige Larson — seen only on screen — as an unctuously hypocritical talk-show host. There’s Joe Von Bokern, who makes Pastor Jim so warm and appealing you can fully understand his influence on Katie and Amanda, and whose description of hell sends shivers down your spine. Alexis Robbins and Bethany Richardson are perfectly matched as Katie and Amanda, respectively — Robbins gentle, warm and softer-edged, Richardson more angular, conflicted and odd. I’ve only seen Richardson once before, as the strange little fairy girl Phaedra in Jerusalem, but she has a riveting presence, and I’m curious to see what she does next.
In her program notes, Astle tells us she knows Hilary Bettis and asked to see one of her scripts some time ago. She promptly fell in love with American Girls, though it took her five years and the support of the Edge’s Rick and Patty Yaconis to get it produced. “This script will challenge you about our society.... Mostly I hope it makes you think about the messaging you give and receive to the young women in your life,” she says. “They need strong role models to show them that it’s okay to just BE who you are....” Her production does communicate this — but I think it also communicates something less didactic, deeper and harder to verbalize, something about the plasticity of the teenage mind, the complexities of human friendship, and the ease with which all of us can confuse or conflate evil with good.
American Girls, presented by the Edge Theater Company through September 27, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood, 303-232-0363, theedgetheater.com.