“[Fencing] hurts just as much as it needs to be effective.”–Athena
It’s a hard world out there to go through alone. To find a friend is a small triumph. Gracie Gardner’s play, Athena, is about two young women who are well-matched rivals in competitive fencing and through their training form a tentative alliance. Gardner gets under the acned skin of these high school characters. We glimpse their impressionable, developing personalities and their vulnerabilities. Emma Miller’s production is a solid rendering but there is perhaps a deeper layer of Gardner’s work that does not completely rise to the surface. However, Athena is time well spent with these vibrant, truthful characters.
The blunt and awkward Athena (Julia Greer) defeats the self-possessed Mary Wallace (Abby Awe) in a fencing bout. Hardly taking a breath, she immediately proposes they train together. City-living Athena and suburban Mary Wallace have little in common except the sport but they both have a desire to win at Nationals and so their competitiveness serves as the motivation for this unusual dynamic. Spending five hours a day training together, they inevitably get closer. They are on the precipice of becoming friends.
Gardner gradually unveils these young women, to us and to each other, with their anxieties, aspirations, and frustrations. Unlike the direct hits they take in fencing, Gardner uses deflection and oblique angles. She presents us with friendship in formation—those tentative questions that lead to revelations, inadvertent honesty that spills out, and the mistakes they make along the way. We can see the influence of each character on the other—more risk taking by Mary Wallace and a softening of some of Athena’s sharp edges. Yet, there also remains a distrust and hesitancy between them. They wear a hardness and softness towards each other in equal measure. Like so much of life when you are a teen, nothing is truly safe enough to be fully-exposed. For these two women are, after all, competitors.
We are in the midst of a long overdue course correction. We are finally seeing a number of works written about young women getting produced. Athena certainly fits within the range of plays like, School Girls: Or, The African Mean Girls Play, The Wolves, and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, which give young women the mic and let them tell their own stories. For many of these plays, adults are on the periphery and the universe we are let into is from the perspective of these young women.
Gardner has just won the 2017 Relentless Prize for her play Pussy Sludge about a young woman who starts menstruating crude oil. With Athena, she has crafted distinct voices that are thinking and feeling their way through a slew of firsts, as is the path of teenagers. She respects her characters and the deeply-felt drama that underscores female friendship. This is both a gentle and localized story while at the same time being a violent and epic one. This paradox is the dynamic of teenage friendships. These young women can scar each other, shape each other, and become fundamental building blocks of another person’s life. These friendships can be the great gift that you may carry with you forever or a horrible nightmare one runs away to college to forget. Or often, some mix of both.
Gardner covers a great deal of ground in only 70 minutes with issues around parental expectations, college dreams, dating, music, and mental health all coming to the fore. But even as these topics arise briefly, she still manages to give us a rounded view on them—just enough detail to let us know what exists beyond the frame of the play. Most of all, these girls are funny and we lean forward, wanting to know more about them.
Structured mostly around fencing practice, Gardner allows her characters to briefly wander beyond the sports arena which helps break up the action. Although a simplified and stripped down production, Miller finds creative ways to deliver on many of these location shifts, particularly with precise changes in lighting (Victoria Bain) and excellent sound design (by Z Worthington). A brief hilarious scene at the dentist’s office is on point with the help of a prop, sound, and lighting change.
Awe and Greer do valiant work. They carry the burden of the rich text well and roll with the humor and the physicality of fencing. However, when the drama escalates at the end, their performances lack the buoyancy to lift the play to that final emotional crescendo. It’s within reach and we intellectually know what we beats we should expect but it does not quite make it to the stage. But it’s a nit. The journey to it has been worthwhile.
This is a company to watch. Director Miller and star Greer are the co-artistic directors of The Hearth which is focused on producing works by female-identifying artists. Besides the fight director, it looks like the entire creative team is made up of non-binary and female-identifying artists. This is no small feat. A conscious commitment to employing and producing work by female-identifying artists is critical these days. This production brings to life characters and voices I’m so grateful to see and it leaves me with great expectations of what comes next.