The Chalk Boy, written and directed by Joshua Conkel, is a sharply funny and energetic foray, sprawling forth from the high school caste system of present-day America, whose typical roles never completely contain his interesting and evolving characters. Centered around four young women, who at first glance could be cast into general archetypes like “The Slut,” “The Freak,” “The Prom Queen,” or “The Jock,” the play follows the developments surrounding the mysterious disappearance of their classmate (whose popularity only seems to grow with his absence), Jeffery Chalk. We’re first introduced to the small Washington state community as voyeurs, watching the town being illustrated before us on chalkboards, then as participants when addressed as part of a school assembly, class, or pep rally (of sorts). This indoctrination works; it’s a familiar world to which everyone can relate, yet it still manages to be fresh, funny, and even surprising.
Here the usual teenage woes of school, dating, and parents are mostly backdrop. Life and limb may now be at risk, battle lines are drawn and redrawn, and the social rules are constantly changing. Even the non-satisfying pop soundtrack that punctuates their lives falls sorrowfully short for them—and Britney’s three-minute chirp doesn’t begin to cut it.
The girls’ underlying search for identity and meaning, whether through chugging cough syrup, spouting religious doctrines, exploring sexual identity, or performing Wiccan rituals, continues throughout, heightened by genuinely eerie bits and a certain sense of ongoing dread, if not exactly impending doom. Threats may loom, as does the character of the missing boy, yet their own self-explorations seem to be where the most is at stake. They are compelled to define themselves in relation to their missing classmate as well as to each other - not to mention trying to find out what has actually happened to him.
It’s no coincidence that the missing boy is named Chalk. Like the narrative blackboards before us, will all of the characters just blow away or be erased at the end of the day? They struggle to answer the questions: Who matters? Who doesn’t? But maybe also: What remains? Or: What lasts? Beyond the characters’ longing for clear identity, what ultimately does carry meaning in their (and our) world?
It’s refreshing in a dark comedy to see characters who seem to be self-searching rather than the predictable self-loathing, as they find themselves unable to be contained within their own drawn circles (or pentagrams as the case may be), demonstrated by their changing allegiances and willingness to experiment beyond them. This optimism satisfies, somehow making it a “feel-good” darkened Black-as-Death world. If nothing else, it’s certainly more fun.
The actors’ performances are deft and dynamic, both as the four classmates and their lively sketches of other Clear Creek inhabitants. Penny’s inner and outer conflicts are portrayed with sullen perfection by Jennifer Harder, who makes Penny’s dissatisfaction with life enjoyably palpable. Mary Catherine Donnelly’s Lauren is single-mindedly earnest, and her full-on embodiment of Penny’s mother and others is skillful and engaging. Marguerite French, who plays the quirky Trisha, also brings to life multiple colorful characters with aplomb. Kate Huisentruit’s Breanna is honest and sweet, while the character seems almost too naïve for the world she inhabits.
The transitions between roles (and scenes) were directed and executed well, sometimes via simple onstage costume changes, which allowed for seamless transformations right before our eyes. The intimate space was also well utilized, with minimalist yet evocative props, corresponding lighting shifts, and double- or triple-duty set pieces, all of which served to bring the audience directly and believably into each scene.
Again, the world Conkel presents is familiar, although by no means predictable. Along these lines, the epilogue might have been slightly more open-ended and questioning rather than (almost too) neatly tied up. Sure, the stories are fairly true to expectation, but it might have been fun to engage the imagination of the audience even further with other possible endings for the characters, whether toward harsher cynicism, or hope for eventual liberation from the usual chalk outlines. In the meantime, though, it’s definitely worth hitching a ride.