“Twilight Bowl” captures small town life and the role of chance for all of us

Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Erica Weiss.

In Twilight Bowl by Rebecca Gilman, now playing at the Goodman’s Owen Theatre, five young women from rural Wisconsin (and one from Winnetka) examine who they are, what their lives are all about, and the role of choice (as opposed to luck) in making life work the way it should. The play takes place in a bowling alley, perhaps the quintessential small town gathering place, as these women meet and examine the differences in how their lives are going now that they are into Life After High School.

One of the friends, an expert bowler, was recruited by Ohio State for its bowling team, but worries about whether she can truly cut it. One works two jobs to afford the tiny apartment she is very proud of, a symbol of her newfound independence. One lives at home in her very Christian family while working at a nursing home. One returned to this small town after a semester in college hoping to figure out what she wants to do with her life. And one…well, in sharp contrast to the others, she has seen her life deteriorate through a series of terrible decisions to the point where, when we first meet her, she is on her way to prison for possession of drugs with intent to sell (though she protests that the drugs were for her father, and that she had no clue he intended to sell them to high schoolers).

All of these young women grew up in the same town. Each seemingly had the same chances. So why are their lives so vastly different? The question of what degree chance has in all of this is at the forefront of the story. The OSU student, Sam (Becca Savoy) has made her life stronger by focusing on her unique bowling skills and strong academics. Her parents support her and encourage her to achieve. Clarice (Hayley Burgess) is content in her life to be able to live on her own. Sharlene (Anne E. Thompson) is very happy working with the old folks and living a deeply devout life. Brielle (Mary Taylor) is marking time, hoping to figure out what she wants to do with the rest of her life before possibly returning to college. But Jaycee (Heather Chrisler) has not been as fortunate as any of the others. A jailed father and a drunken mother have left her without any real role models, and the decisions she has made in her young life have landed her where she is.

The play opens with an ill-conceived going away party for Jaycee that devolves into argument and frustration because her friends cannot understand the depths of her fear. They try to give her advice from “Orange Is The New Black,” but she’s not having it. From visiting her father in prison, she knows already, far better than any of the others, what she is in for, and it terrifies her. Even an attempt by Sharlene to have everyone tell a nice story about her—to remind her that she is not, after all, a bad person—goes horribly awry.

The second scene of the play takes place months later, with Sam back for Thanksgiving, struggling both in school and with her place on the bowling team, and wondering if she is really cut out for this.

“There’s no shame in staying here,” she says to her friends, trying to convince herself that failure is an option.

“There’s no shame in coming back,” says Brielle, who has done just that. But both of them are fully aware that the life opportunities in this place are few and far between. Brielle is, after all, managing a bowling alley, and even she is on the lookout for escape.

A sharp contrast is drawn between these young women and one whom Sam brings with her to town, a college sophomore from Winnetka whom she doesn’t know well but hopes to become better friends with. Maddy (Angela Morris) is bright but vapid, despite the fact that she has had all of the advantages of growing up in an upper middle class environment and going to a top-tier high school. She can’t see the difference all of this has made for her and spends her college time partying and doing drugs. It’s easy to see that, had she grown up in this town, she would not be looking at the same future she is. Chance does play a huge role in our lives.

Erica Weiss directs the play, which workshopped at the Goodman last year, with a quick pace and a fine attention to characterization. The performances she gets from her strong cast are excellent. (Chrisler is particularly strong in playing the wild pre-prison Jaycee and the chastened post-prison version of the girl.) The set design by Regina Garcia reflects Gilman’s naturalistic dialogue in a very realistic version of a bowling alley bar lit by Cat Wilson. And Victoria Deiorio’s original music and sound design (and Izumi Inaba’s costumes) add to the ambience.

Just how much do we control our own fates? It’s obvious that we all start out in different places with different advantages and disadvantages, but is that it? Is everything in our lives determined by the chance of where we were born and who our parents are? Clearly that is a large part of it, but Gilman shows in this play that our own decisions have something significant to do with it as well. It may not be an earth-shattering revelation, but it is well worth remembering.

The Twilight Bowl is a Goodman Theatre production now playing at 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, until Mar 10. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.

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