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With reproductive rights threatened in ways they haven’t been in four decades, Forum Theatre is responding with a double feature that will stay with you, whatever your beliefs on the question of abortion.
Forum is calling the duo—which share a cast, and which were both written and directed by women—the Nasty Women Rep, confirming that the pairing is meant as a rebuke to the ascendant misogyny of the Trump Administration. The shows are set about a century apart: What Every Girl Should Know unfolds in the dormitory of a Catholic girls’ home just prior to the first World War, while Dry Land is mostly set in the girls’ locker room of a Florida high school swimming pool in the present day. Both shows were designed by Paige Hathaway, who situates the audience on two sides of Forum’s Silver Spring black box space, each half looking out at the other across the stage. This means we’re watching not just the performances, but our fellows’ visceral responses to them.
In the case of the distressing Dry Land especially, that enriches and complicates the experience. Emily Whitford plays Amy, a bright member of the swim team whose pleas for attention take the form of promiscuity. She’s asking her teammate Esther (Yakima Rich)—a new-in-town star athlete who remains sexually naive save for a possibly made-up encounter on a trampoline (“Good, I guess… a little bouncy”)—to punch her in the stomach, a request she’ll repeat with alarming frequency. There follow many other equally punishing and medically unsound attempts to rid herself of the baby she’s carrying, the father of which has no apparent interest in fatherhood, or in Amy. Whitford and Rich persuasively convey the precarious intimacy of a friendship between two desperately lonely kids—watching them, you feel like you’re eavesdropping. And that’s before the showstopping scene that pushes Whitford and Rich, and us, to their and our emotional limit.
If this school seems bizarrely devoid of grown-ups save for Matty Griffith’s haunting, near-wordless role as a janitor, I’m willing to accept that as a heightened expression of Amy’s terror and sense of isolation. The actors—which also include Thais Menendez as one of Amy’s less self-aware pals—are all convincing as older high schoolers, a credulousness that’s key to play’s power. (Spiegel, who now writes for the Netflix series The OA, wrote her first draft of Dry Land when she was in high school, in a playwriting workshop taught by Lucas Hnath, whose work has been produced locally by Studio Theatre and Theater J.)
In Every Girl, Whitford’s Teresa is the polar opposite of her Dry Land character, styling herself as the most refined and worldly of her three girls’-home roommates. When the women hold nightly masturbation contests and record their orgasm tallies in a leatherbound journal (!), Teresa is the one who’ll say she’s fantasizing about the psychoanalyst who “treated” her when she was 12, or great men from antiquity, “like Napoleon at Castiglione.” You have to admire her specificity.
She and the others are suspicious of Joan (the intrepid Lida Maria Benson), a new arrival. They have secrets to protect, after all: They keep a photograph of pioneering feminist and (coiner of the phrase “birth control”) Margaret Sanger in their room, to which they sometimes pray. Father Dolan, the unseen authority who runs the girls’ home, decries Sanger and her teachings as evil, naturally. Gradually the other ladies allow Joan, who has fled a sexually abusive father, to into their elaborate shared fantasy life, complete with alter egos. They give each other nicknames like Falcon and Bear.
Over time, the four women find themselves increasingly subject to speaking-in-tongues-style fits of ecstasy, expressed as dance numbers to floor-thumping, 21st-century house music. (Whitford is a veteran of Synetic Theatre company.) These dance breaks are brief, conveying the violent passion being managed by this veneer of rigid decorum. If What Every Girl Should Know (which borrows its title from an influential 1913 pamphlet by Sanger) doesn’t have the same urgency as as Dry Land, it nevertheless shares a keen awareness of the systems of oppression that affect women disproportionately, a century ago and now. In Joan’s bleak assessment, “All women are born dead.”
In repertory at Forum Theatre to April 15. 8641 Colesville Road. $33-$38. (301) 588-8279. forum-theatre.org.