What Omaha playwright Ellen Struve stirs up with “Recommended Reading for Girls” is clever, funny and surprisingly moving.
In the play, which had its world premiere Friday night at the Omaha Community Playhouse, Struve explores the relationships between mothers and daughters in a reflecting pool of the literary characters young girls absorb. Is life in those books anything like reality? Do the heroines point the way, or mislead? How do real-life family stories connect to literary stories, especially when both have been filtered through time and memory?
In the hands of Struve, director Amy Lane and a perfectly cast ensemble, the questions prove both intriguing and entertaining.
“Recommended Reading” opens as 30-something Amy Saunders arrives home to help care for her seriously ill mother, Marilynn — and to push her to take part in a new cancer drug trial.
But look who else has arrived: the heroines of the books Amy and her mother loved as little girls.
How and why are Heidi and Anne of Green Gables and A Little Princess and Penny Parker (a Nancy Drew wannabe) here? How can Amy hide them or get rid of them before they disturb her mother?
They're not just figments of Amy's imagination. Her very pregnant sister, Jackie, can also see them, even if she didn't read the books Mom handed down.
The sisters don't need this freak-out right now. Amy just got laid off and has buried resentment over a romance that didn't work out. Jackie is scared about the prospect of having a child without her mother to lean on.
Hilariously, each literary heroine wants to help through the filter of the only story she knows. Anne brings relentless optimism and up-front honesty to the table. Penny Parker looks for clues and ulterior motives. The Princess embraces housekeeping and shouldering through. Little Heidi thinks homemade bread and butter will help.
Forget rational explanations. Struve and Lane make this unlikely mix of touching realism and off-the-wall fantasy sail, though a talky second act could use some tightening as Amy's anger builds in a search for answers.
What succeeds is strong character work from the heroines, especially Olivia Sather as Anne and Shannon Jackson as Penny Parker. Poignant, mostly quiet Mika Caplan gets extra points for delivering all her Heidi lines in correctly pronounced German (translated by Amy Schweid as the saccharine princess).
Mary Kelly is just about perfect as a wise, weary and accepting mom. Laura Leininger, as Jackie, makes a hilarious pregnant lady, acing both movement and line delivery, while Christina Rohling effectively strikes a chord as a feisty young woman struggling with where she finds her life.
The sisters' scenes with each other, and with their mom, were my favorites, grounding the craziness happening around them. They will no doubt bring out a few hankies, along with belly laughs of recognition.
Steven Williams' detailed tri-level set in cream and soft blue sets the tone, while Sharon Sobel's costumes bring the literary characters fully to life.
And just in case you think this is for women only, I saw dads with young daughters at a Thursday preview — and overheard intermission chatter about memories of moms and the books that mattered to boys growing up.
Contact the writer: