We tend to remember our teenage years as a period of profound uncertainty—a time when we experiment with various forms of rebellion on our path to figuring out who we want to become for the remaining 60 or so years of our lives. Rebecca Gilman’s latest work, however, makes a convincing argument that the years following adolescence—roughly ages 18 to 23—are our most insecure, scariest years. In fact, both times I left the play, I was convinced that the reason we do not have a word to label these years of our lives is because so many of us have simply blocked them from our memories.
Twilight Bowl, which solidifies Gilman on my list of top contemporary playwrights, features a cast of six female characters, all aged 18-23 at the start, who are struggling with the challenges of early adulthood. Three try college (with varying degrees of success). Two try to support themselves on low-paying jobs. One, the character at the center of all the action despite having limited stage time, has been sentenced to years in prison.
Set in the bar-area of a bowling alley in an economically-depressed Wisconsin town, the action begins with a going-away party for Jaycee (Heather Chrisler). Sharlene (Anne E. Thompson), the most religious and sheltered character, wants to play a game where each person tells a story about Jaycee before Jaycee opens her gifts. Sharlene tells a story about a time when Jaycee helped her win an Easter egg hunt, which Jaycee dismisses because she cheated. Clarice (Hayley Burgress), Jaycee’s best friend, tells a story about Jaycee getting drunk and needing to urinate in the woods. Sam (Becca Savoy), Jaycee’s younger cousin, tells a story about Jaycee electrocuting herself at their grandmother’s house just to see what it feels like.
Yes, Jaycee is wild, and this party marks her last night of freedom before reporting to jail the following morning. When Jaycee confides in Sharlene that she is terrified, Gilman produces the first of many moments where the six characters reflect on their lives and admit the uncertainties of their futures.
The two remaining scenes similarly reflect key moments in Jaycee’s progression although Jaycee herself is not seen again until the end. Scene two takes place the day after Thanksgiving. Sam has returned home from college for the weekend and made the long drive to visit Jaycee with Clarice and Sharlene, but Jaycee refused to see them. Scene three flashes forward more than two years, when Sam, now hailed a “home-grown hero” because she is a member of Ohio State’s championship bowling team, leaves her own party without seeing Jaycee, who is back in town on parole. Along the way, we meet two other characters: Maddie (Angela Morris), a hard-partying but depressed friend of Sam’s from Ohio State; and Brielle (Mary Taylor), a bowling alley employee who dropped out of college after realizing she could not decide on a major.
Like Gilman’s other works, Twilight Bowl balances humor and drama to explore a wide range of characters and current topics. Yet, one moment at the end of Twilight Bowl was so powerful that it inspired me to see the play a second time. It inspired me to reflect upon other plays with specific moments that I will never forget. I may not remember the scenes word-for-word, but I remember how each encouraged me to reflect on important aspects of our shared human experiences.
The following is a list of five scenes from five plays in which the characters’ emotional progressions led to profound moments for the audience. Each should be credited not only to the playwright and his/her imagination but also to the actors who brought the powerful moments to life:
Grandma Cries – Lost in Yonkers (1992)
This performance at the Royal George was my first foray into Neil Simon’s ability to alternate between hilarity to tear-inducing drama. After Bella leaves the stage in this penultimate scene, her aggressively stoic mother, faced with regrets for the cruelty she has shown each of her children, sits alone on stage and begins to sob into her hand as the lights black out.
“With You” – Boleros for the Disenchanted (2009)
José Rivera’s play about the optimism of first love contrasts with the realities of aging, sickness, and fidelity in this play staged at the Goodman. When Flora offers her husband Eusebio, who is bed-ridden and unable to speak following a stroke, the chance to end his pain with an overdose of pills, Eusebio slurs, “Wysshh ewyu, Foohah.” (“With you, Flora.”) The difficulties of a lifetime of marriage ultimately cannot compare to love felt by two people married for over 50 years.
In Need of a Rest – Grand Concourse (2015)
Shelley, a nun beaten down by years of running a soup kitchen, spends most of Heidi Schreck’s play fighting her own conflicts and being under-appreciated. However, when Frog has a mental episode, Shelley is able to convince Frog to take his meds and go home because “I think after all they’ve put you through, you deserve to rest.” This scene is an ode to how we all, sometimes, deserve to fall asleep and wake up to a new day.
The Fourth Confession – Circle Mirror Transformation (2017)
Marty, while leading an improvisational acting class for four people, initiates a game where everyone writes an anonymous secret on a slip of paper. When the secrets are read, Marty (and the audience) are faced with the shock that her husband (a member of the class) has confessed to loving another women. This scene of revelation by Annie Baker is a moment where a character must maintain composure even as her life is publicly shattered.
The Story I Should Have Told – Twilight Bowl (2019)
Clarice tells Jaycee (now on parole), who she has not spoken to in three years, that she remembers the time during their junior year of high school when she and her mother had to go to a shelter to escape her abusive father. Clarice only had the clothes she was sleeping in, which included an embarrassing shirt with a unicorn on it. When Clarice arrived to school for a third consecutive day wearing that embarrassing shirt, Jaycee slipped her a paper bag with four nice shirts inside. “That’s the story I wish I’d told once,” Clarice tells Jaycee. For these two characters, maturity is defined by the moment Clarice is able to collapse her tough exterior and express her appreciation for her friend.