Though the story line seems like the kind of thing you would find in an after-school special, good casting and a wonderful cast rapport save the Vital Theater Company's Full Bloom from being a too maudlin production. When I saw the show, the cast seemed to have gelled wonderfully. Confident in their characters and extremely comfortable with each other, they existed together for the sole purpose of creating onstage that moment in a woman's life when, because she is no longer just a girl, her physicality becomes the most important part of her self. Phoebe (Jennifer Blood), the blooming protagonist, is a 15-year-old student suddenly experiencing the mixed messages and implications of her newly developed body. A highly literate, precocious young character, Phoebe reminds us of other Great Young New Yorkers, like Jonathan Safran Foer's Oskar Schell or Kay Thompson's Eloise. But unlike those children, Phoebe has one foot in the world of adults, and she finds that boy-girl friendships are tinged with sexual undertones while parents are almost always the enemy.
The play is influenced, or perhaps haunted, by J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, and references to it abound. In the novel, Holden Caulfield's younger sister is named Phoebe, and we wonder if our protagonist—who is named after that character—is inheriting the emotional distress that the book's minor character may have to one day face. The Great Young New Yorker par excellence, Holden holds sway over this play's Phoebe because she is concerned that he may never leave the sanitarium. Holden's inability to decode the language of the adult world prefigures Phoebe's, and we watch this talented child retreat inward because of the sudden emphasis on her physical attributes.
The Greek mythological moon goddess Artemis—Phoebe is one of her lesser known names—serves as Phoebe's other namesake and a continual point of reference. Sitting on her fire escape and watching the moon is the closest thing to an escape that Phoebe can muster. Out there she is free from the judgment and speculation that her newly developed body elicits. Out there she meets Jesse, a new kid from Minneapolis who seems to want to be her only genuine friend.
Jesse, affectionately played by William Jackson Harper, is just as much an outsider as Phoebe is, and the two form an attachment that proves important for the young girl. Phoebe has attracted the attention of the cutest boy in school, but she can talk about birds and books with Jesse. Ironically, in a play about the hardships young women face, we'd be hard pressed to find better male characters than the ones we watch here.
Jim (an endearing Jason Furlani), Phoebe's longtime next-door neighbor, is a fireman and father figure with a heart of gold. Full Bloom does not shy away from the awkwardness that Phoebe's sexual development causes between her and Jim; at one point she is mistaken for his girlfriend, and he must learn to redraw the physical and emotional boundaries between them. We're not sure what will become of these relationships, but we feel that Phoebe is safe with Jesse and Jim, safe from some of the pressures she may not be able to control on her own.
But Phoebe isn't the only one struggling here: her mother (believably played by Jennifer Dorr White) is reeling from the disintegration of her 20-year marriage; Jim's wife Crystal (a charismatic LeeAnne Hutchison) is a not quite washed-up actress looking to recapture her youth by going under the knife. The world of womanhood—with its constant mirror checks and double checks, its clothing changes and sidelong glances—is a confusing, scary place. Though they try to give Phoebe self-assurance and hope, the older women find themselves dumped, and aging is treated like a disease.
It hardly seems fair to harp on Blood's age when part of Full Bloom's important message is the lengths to which women must go to preserve their looks. It is at times difficult to see Blood as a child, though her well-rehearsed physical awkwardness, and a high-pitched, almost squeaky voice, are testaments to her commitment to the character.
Linda Ames Key's economical staging and the cast's excellent commitment make Full Bloom a vital piece of art and a way to reach out to young girls who are about to become the Phoebes of tomorrow.