There are no surprises in “My Girlish Days,” a new period drama by Karen B. Evans that chronicles the events in the life of a young African-American girl from rural North Carolina in the years prior to and after the Second World War. The days of the title begin with the sweet innocence of teen pals sneaking off to a grassy meadow where they discard their dresses, smoke a little weed and share their dreams of the future. But Evans’ coming-of-age play soon devolves into a tiresome domestic drama with the numbing structure and telegraphed cliches of a daily TV soaper.
A winsome teenage Gertie Watkins (Melle Powers) is wooed by Sam Williams, the captain of the high school football team (Spencer Scott Barros). When plans for a college education collapse for Gertie, she marries her beau, and rather than face a future as “sharecroppers with a bunch of babies,” Sam whisks her off to the Big Apple in pursuit of his dream career as a jazz trumpet player.
Sam is less than successful with his horn and unable to make ends meet. His mounting frustration leads to marital abuse when Gertie confesses to an indiscretion. Second act finds Gertie, a near decade later, back in the sticks again, working in a shirt factory as a single mom (with a weakness for drink), raising her 8-year-old daughter. Sam, now an Army sergeant, returns and seeks custody of the child.
Evans’ writing is often flavorful and poetically picturesque, especially when naive, young Gertie explores the big city on a subway and ends up in Coney Island. The scene, as acted by Powers, is one of the play’s more appealing moments.
But largely the cast fails to breathe life into the characters, despite the earnest performances of Powers as the country lass and Barros in the more difficult role of the manipulative husband. Kimberly JaJuan does well as Gertie’s plucky girlfriend, but the role of a wary parent is so underwritten that Cherene Snow never has the opportunity to dig into it.
The play suffers from director Matthew Parent’s lumbering pace and static direction. The staging often seems oddly unresponsive to the motivation in the script, and a city sequence is played so far upstage that it is very nearly negligible.
The new venue for American Stage — a three-mile move from the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson to the campus of Bergen Community College — boasts a big, open stage, and the intimacy of the piece is often swallowed up by the vast reaches of the playing space. Unfortunate, too, are echoing acoustics that tend to muddle much of the dialogue.
Incidental jazz riffs from the likes of Ella, Duke and Satchmo fill 14 scene shifts with palatable period atmosphere. One selection, the infectious and bluesy “Careless Love,” seems to say everything the playwright had in mind.