Onstage Playhouse Debuts San Diego Premiere of SLOWGIRL

A Timely Piece About Empathy in Youth, Adulthood, and Family. 

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti

Ava Smithmier and Jason Heil in Slowgirl. Photo Daren Scott

Onstage Playhouse's slogan is "Theatre worth talking about". With their current San Diego premiere Slowgirl the theatre company located in south San Diego definitely brought again a piece for table talk starting with the title alone...written by American playwright Greg Pierce, Slowgirl tells the story of Becky (Ava Smithmier) a high school student that is visiting her uncle Sterling (Jason Heil) in Los Angeles, Costa Rica for a week. More than seeing him, it is like killing two birds with one stone because Becky literally fled the scene of a caused tragedy during a house party where one of her classmates Mary Beth, who is probably on the Autism spectrum and made fun of by her peers, and being called "slowgirl". During the party, Mary Beth becomes the center of attention while jugging jello shots unaware of the alcohol. Becky thinks it's a hoot and scales it up by taping wings on her arms. Between the jello shots and the hype, Mary Beth thinks she can fly and prompted by Becky and others, jumps out of the window to supposedly land in the pool but misses...

During Becky's week's stay with Sterling, while going back and forth with her versions of what happened, the uncle also comes clean about his failed marriage and law career as well as why he left or tried to leave it all behind.

You would think the one-act piece with no intermission and just two actors would be a simple one but, it is almost like a rule. The fewer actors there are, the more complex and dosed for the audience to de-layer the plot will be. Onstage Artistic Director James P. Darvas again rose to the challenge by leading the cast through these histrionic tiers that reflect meticulous care teaming with scenic design by Duane McGregor and assisted by Herbet Siguenza. Becky describes herself as the most outgoing person in her class and boy! is she a full-throttle, energy-max cannonball that cannot stay still or quiet. Ava Smithmier in her Onstage debut, imprints that high energy with sprinkles of young naiveness that can be confused or passed as really a lack of awareness due to a lack of life experience but no, I believe this is a very timely piece. Becky is a total poster child for Gen Z with a combination of freedom, owning and commanding the space as well as vast selfishness and ego. (promise I am not proyecting). 

Uncle Sterling, Becky's mom's brother on the contrary, is calm and even introverted. Jason Heil who I had not seen on stage in a while nailed the "inside out" perspective of a man who has gone through it and decided to reclude and leave it all behind. The yin-yang combination between Smithmier and Heil is balanced, well-paced, and truly enthralling. Greg Pierce's writing as well as ripe is real and funny as he has Becky using curse words like cuntcum juice, and another array of combinations with cum. Intertwining those words released the tension buildup during the scenes. Pierce also includes in the dialogue annotations regarding America being a continent, not a country AND Costa Rica being in Central America and not South. That just warmed my soul. 

Ava Smithmier and Jason Heil in Slowgirl. Photo Daren Scott

This company is also known for presenting wonderful and elaborate set designs that defy the room and use it all from the first inch to the last. In their past musical productions or plays that have musical elements like 2021's Ezequiel Scrooge or 2022's First Date where house left/stage right or the entrance to the theatre, that area was used to place musicians totally taking advantage of the area, where in Slowgirl it was an extension of the Costarican living space with a trail and a labyrinth created by Sterling that the characters go to and have their meditative moments. Combined with painted green leaves and black to give the nighttime/jungle effect, where even the back of the doors was painted, Anthony Garcia truly nailed this set design that also had a kitchen, open elevated space with a hammock, bathroom, and living room. Props to Javier Guerrero who brought the vision to reality as he constructed the set.

I do have a directional note regarding the actor's use of the space. The good thing is that while using all of it, they came inches close to the audience in the first row which made it livelier, rawer, and even more uncomfortable -in a good way- giving the experience an added punch. The not-so-good thing is in the high-intensity scenes where the uncle and niece have heated arguments, they go up and down the elevated space between the living room and the hammock area. Yes, I appreciated it, yes it makes sense and as they do it over and over it seems like mice in a wheel which also adds and makes sense to what is happening giving it that feel of entrapment but it also gets a tad dizzy. 

Craig Noel Outstanding Specialty Artist 2022 award winner, Kevin "Blax" Burroughs continues impressing as his lighting design was amazing truly capturing the twilight effect with the shadows, the lights, and the colors, totally imitating nature and since the plot takes place IN nature, even better. The same goes for Estefania Ricalde's sound design which guides the piece throughout, but it is the special sound effects with parrots and iguanas that scratch the ceiling during the night which freaks Becky out, that totally rounds it out.

Aside from the obvious questions like "what would you have done as a parent?" or "what would you have done as Becky?" Slowgirl brings many topics to the table like what empathy looks like? the lack of...responsibility, actions, and consequences. What are we teaching our kids and are we really preparing them to be functional adults in this vortex of a society? as well as the strength in a family unit when it truly exists.

Currently playing until April 2 at the ChulaVista venue. For ticket prices and performance times please click here. 

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