“the terrible girls”: A Southern Gothic Drama

by Ronald Comer

the terrible girls, playing now through April 3rd at the Latvian Society at 531 N. 7th Street in Philadelphia, offers 70 minutes of grand storytelling in the tradition of “Southern Gothic Drama”. Novelist Pat Conroy explained this style of storytelling in the following way: “My mother, Southern to the bone, once told me, ‘All Southern literature can be summed up in these words: On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.’”  Carson McCullers’ offered that Southern writers frequently juxtapose “the tragic with the humorous, the immense with the trivial, the sacred with the bawdy, the whole soul of man with a materialistic detail.”  This captivating play by Jacqueline Goldfinger, an award-winning playwright, possesses each of these characteristics and more. 

Zura Johnson, Amanda Schoonover and Kristyn Chouiniere star in Azuka Theatre's "the terrible girls" in Philadelphia PA through April 3.

 All of the action takes place in the backroom kitchen of a small diner in a rural town off the interstate.  The “terrible girls” are three waitresses, each of whom at the start of the play share in common only their respective senses of desolation.  Birdie, played with restrained perfection by Zura Johnson, seems to be the stalwart of the group as she goes about managing, clipboard-in-hand, the daily tasks associated with running the diner.  Kristyn Chouiniere delivers an intensely strong performance in her role as Gretchen, the flirtatious co-worker, who wants to be anywhere but stuck in this diner, and preferable in a man’s embrace.  As the seemingly dull-witted third waitress, Amanda Schoonover, is devastatingly accurate in her portrayal of the tortured soul, Minnie, who’s dark secret ultimately serves as the driving force that holds these characters together. 

While Minnie seems to want only to please their absent boss, the diner’s owner, Birdie and Gretch talk longingly in the opening scenes about hoped-for romance and past romances lost.  Opportunity is a concept that seems always just out of reach for these women.  Plans for what their lives could be somehow get continually misplaced amid the dirty dishes and memories hidden away behind all too familiar diner walls.  What continues, despite their longing for other lives in other places, to hold them captive?  Minnie, fearing the loss of her companions to their desires to be in a happier place opines that “even in [Disneyland] the happiest place on earth, girls still got to wait in line to go to the bathroom.” 

Zura Johnson and Kristyn Chouiniere in a scene from "the terrible girls" at Azuka Theatre in Philadelphia PA through April 3.

Through several scenes, representing changing time frames, the dialogue, which is flawlessly delivered in southern dialect, moves the action relentlessly forward as layers of secrets haunting these three women are peeled away.  Entering at one point is a young deaf man who becomes another target of Gretch’s affection.  Though on stage for only a few scenes, Nathan Holt is wonderfully convincing in his portrayal of one whose outcome might be compared to that suffered by a careless male mate caught in a blackwidow spider’s tangled mess of a web. 

This is an immensely entertaining and thought provoking play that will leave audiences with a great sense of satisfaction resulting from excellent performances in a superbly well-staged production. This is a play that will be appreciated on a great many levels.  It is a dark comedy for sure, but, it will also reach deep within the hearts of its audience as it delves into the complex inner lives of these three wonderfully constructed characters. 

the terrible girls
by Jacqueline Goldfinger
Directed by Allison Heishman
March 23 – April 3, 2011
Latvian Society at 531 N. 7th Street
Philadelphia PA
(215) 733-0255

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