In a Milwaukee theater season rife with premieres, First Stage Theater brings us one more with the incredible play, The Forgotten Girl, adapted by Idris Goodwin from a novel by India Hill Brown.
First Stage has two sides to their coin. If you have only attended their presentations at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater, you are familiar with their bright and noisy side…theater that presents some serious topics and strong story lines but built around large ensembles with colorful sets and music, song, and dance. As an adult theater goer I am intrigued by the flip side, the plays they present in their home base in the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center. Their theater in the round here is far more intimate, so these plays generally feature smaller casts, very simple stage/prop settings and are more often dramas…and are more reliant on the youth actors in their company. The Forgotten Girl is a prime example.
Now I am going to try to describe what The Forgotten Girl is all about without too many spoilers. The play has so many layers and for them all to work together effectively for you when you visit First Stage, I need to be careful not to give too much away. But I will start with this: this play heavily emphasizes the importance of family, community, and abiding friendships. And how our history can easily be overlooked or totally forgotten. And just for a moment, forgotten is the key word.
But of course the first question is, who is the forgotten girl? As the play starts that would seem to be Iris, a curious energetic twelve year old who seems to have been snubbed in a number of ways at her school and by her peers. We are never completely sure why she is being overlooked but there are hints in the text. But she has a best friend, Daniel, who is complicit in helping Iris reach for a very particular goal and dream. And the play gives us a good look at how friendship works here…Iris is often an instigator while Daniel in a bit reticent to try some of the things that Iris suggests…but in the end they support each other! Aas the play progresses, you may find a number of other candidates for your forgotten girl.
And they are supported and loved by their family. Iris has very supportive parents in Daddy and Mama and Daniel’s grandmother, Suga, is a very solid role model and supportive adult as well. There are just three adult actors in the play: Daddy is played by Sherrick Robinson, who has a hard time being the stern father even when something serious is happening; Mama as played by Alexandra King, something of a take charge mom who instantly meets with the principal when she realize Iris is being left out of school activities (Iris obviously gets her spunk from Mama); and Cynthia Cobb as Suga, the sweet grandma with a superstitious streak and a secret to tell before the play comes to an end.
At the urging of Iris, Iris and Daniel enter a woods near their homes during a snow storm, against the instructions of the adults in their lives. And while making snow angels in the fresh snow, they discover the gravestone of Avery, who died at the age of 12. Iris becomes fixated with Avery and this results in a number of eerie events…apparent nightmares, nocturnal visions, and her window mysteriously being opened in the middle of the night. Things get stranger and stranger until Avery makes herself known to Iris during one of these late night visits.
Daniel and Iris are assigned a class project to research and report on a bit of local history, and they discover that Avery’s grave is part of an abandoned segregated grave yard. So other than writing and presenting their report, they also try to start a school class project to help restore and beautify the grave yard. And that’s when we get to know two of their classmates, Heather and Sara. They represent a different point of view on small town contemporary life and how it has evolved from local history. One bit of action to watch is how the relationship of Heather and Sara shifts during the play. There is an interesting transition there.
Director Jon Royal has given us a very fluid play here. The action never stops even when the actors aren’t speaking. And Royal makes ultimate use of the oval stage as action moves from one section to the next, speakers move upstage or down as the ensemble moves/removes stage set devices around them, and yes they move in a very specific and ghost like choreography through out. At times it was a struggle for me to know where to focus my attention, but that helps build some of the tension and anxiousness that the story holds for us.
For me, this was the most engaging and satisfying production that I have experienced at First Stage. The characters are clear and interesting individuals and the story draws contemporary life accurately, and shows how it is a result of our history, even when we don’t see that anymore. It deserves a much wider audience than the capacity at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center.
First Stage productions always work with two casts. So I haven’t gone into discussion of individual youth actors…you may see the Snow Cast while I saw the Angel Cast.
The Forgotten Girl runs through November 12, 2023 and you can get more info or order tickets here. The Forgotten Girl is recommended for children ages 10 – 12, teens, and adults. And there is a lot here for adults!