In a Catholic reformatory after lights out, two girls, Theresa and Anne, are describing sexual self-stimulation to a third, Lucy—who just isn't getting it. After comparing it to riding a bike and waves at the seashore, this exchange follows:
Theresa: Think of it as ... rolling. Like rolling dough with a good firm rolling pin.
Anne: She's not pumpernickel, Theresa.
Theresa: Well, what would you call it?
Anne: I don't know, something like ... pushing? Thumping? ...
Theresa: ... massage ... or plucking, like plucking a harp ...
Anne: A harp? What the hell are you doing over there?
Lucy: You guys! You are not helping!
In the able hands of actors Marie Garlock, Carolyn McDaniel and Alice Rose Turner, this awkward episode in crowd-sourced sex ed at the opening of What Every Girl Should Know is verifiably laughable—until, that is, we remember the all but total lack of other sources for such information not quite a century ago, when reproductive information was kept from the general public by force of law.
We've largely forgotten that Margaret Sanger's street-corner distribution of medical pamphlets and advocacy of what was called "family limitation" in the pages of the socialist newspaper The New York Call weren't merely revolutionary social acts at the time. There were also punishable, under the Comstock Laws, by imprisonment with hard labor and fines in the tens of thousands of dollars per instance. This fact necessitated Sanger's year-long exile in England in 1914–15.
It's a fascinating and chilling coincidence that the world premiere of Durham playwright Monica Byrne's sparkling dramatic comedy takes us back to that time just as a series of real-world legislative efforts on these issues seem aimed in the same direction.
Women's access to contraception is not only being re-litigated in recent GOP opposition to a compromise permitting insurers to provide birth control without copays to employees of religious nonprofit organizations, it's also being reversed in a series of states. After a spring in which Virginia joined the ranks of those requiring a medically useless ultrasound procedure (which can be transvaginal in Texas) designed to deter women from abortion, last week Planned Parenthood announced it was being forced to suspend all non-surgical abortion services in Wisconsin, after Mississippi enacted a law likely to force the state's only abortion clinic out of business. (North Carolina, meanwhile, awaits the outcome of a court challenge to our own compulsory ultrasound bill, which Republicans enacted over Gov. Bev Perdue's veto last July.)
Given this parade of electable moral rectitude, our culture apparently needs a vivid reminder of what life was like when the so-called protections of the state offered women like those in What Every Girl Should Know no protection whatsoever from incest, rape and other forms of sexual predation.
Given the research, it's fitting that such scenarios figure into the backstories of more than half the characters we meet in Byrne's compelling play. Not that you can easily tell in early scenes primarily devoted to the snarky camaraderie and teenage games of the three scrappy institutionalized girls mentioned above.
But when an enigmatic new girl, Joan (Skylar Gudasz), arrives after the death of their fourth roommate, changes are in store. That's because Joan's suitcase holds more than a change of clothing and childhood memorabilia. It also has the evidence she was able to hide from the police: copies of The Call and other pamphlets that resulted in her mother's incarceration.
As the girls devour the literary contraband, the vivid, if uninformed, sexual fantasies they've entertained cross into new boundaries. Impressed with Sanger's writing and advocacy, they declare her the patroness of their room—and their personal, secret saint—in an improvised ceremony that, in a fantastic twist, has an unexpected but rather delightful consequence, choreographed by Clare Byrne to a similarly improbable soundtrack. When it does, four girls discover, if not invent, a spiritual practice that liberates their imaginations far beyond their dingy room of institution green—before it increasingly begins to manifest in mysterious ways in their daily lives.
Occasionally we wonder if Byrne walls out too much of the girls' daily experiences (in particular, their physical labors in the reformatory's public laundry) by keeping us sequestered in their dorm room. Still, the confessions heard there ring true: We witness the pensive poignancy of Lucy's private prayers, the fantastic flights of fancy—and the unembellished tales of abuse, and desires to be avenged—that the girls offer up as increasingly cathartic sacrifices to their saint.
Much of the credit for this is due to Lucius Robinson's direction of this quartet of able actors, even if the musical and lighting cues that signal transitions to the script's occasionally altered states aren't always accompanied by corresponding physical changes in the characters. Clare Byrne's interesting choreography seems to veer from the secret life of bees to a rite of spring—but it lingers overlong in a passage concerning the sin of theft.
Ultimately, the real world intrudes upon these unlikely novitiates when the conception one of them experiences is exposed as anything but immaculate. In a cautionary ending, Byrne reminds us that there's danger when women are denied fundamental control over their own bodies. One century later, the continuing need for that reminder is evident all around us.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Girls nights out."