For the five student-athletes in the play “The Tall Girls,” basketball isn’t just an extracurricular activity. It’s a possible way out from their dead-end lives in a dusty Midwestern town — rather heavy-handedly named Poor Prairie — during, as the program says, “A mythical moment in the 1930s.” If they’re good enough, they can hook up with a barnstorming team, and make some money.
The chances may be small, but it’s not like they have any better options.
The Meg Miroshnik-written play — which opened at the Luna Stage in West Orange last weekend, in its East Coast Premiere, with direction by Luna Stage founder Jane Mandel — is a lot of different things.
On one level, it’s a down-home portrait of five girls with believable real-life problems. Puppy (Lucy Schmidt), for instance, is playing basketball against the wishes of her conservative family, and Inez (Brigie Coughlin) is in danger of becoming homeless if her family loses their farm.
It’s also a bit of a melodrama. Jean (Emily Verla) moves to the town for mysterious reasons (which are eventually revealed), while the coach, Haunt Johnny (Mike Mihm), has some skeletons of his own in his closet.
There’s some good comic relief via boy-crazy Lurlene (Daisy Chase), an outrageous flirt. And the play is also a feminist statement, with the girls fighting political forces that threaten to take away their opportunity to play.
The play felt a little unfocused to me, though I guess that was part of the point, with the five girls and their coach, all with major issues of their own, struggling to cohere as a unit. It was a nice touch that you not only heard them talk about their problems, but you saw them working it all out on the court: The stage was a square, with audience seating on three sides, and a wall with a hoop on the other. Though not every scene was set in the gym, the stage could be used in that way, so in various scenes you got to see the girls morphing into a skilled team, under the tutelage of Haunt Johnny.
Jean is ultimately the central character. She’s a newcomer to basketball, but it soon becomes apparent that she has star potential. This doesn’t sit well with the team’s previous standout performer, Almeda (Vanessa Cardenas), but the five find a way to deal with that, as well as other issues such as the fact that Lurlene is more interested in striking poses for the boys in the stands than actually playing.
Students from Montclair High School, Columbia High School in Maplewood and Montclair State University fill three of the five basketball-team roles, and they all handled themselves like seasoned pros. Mihm was good, too, though the role didn’t require much more of him than to project a mysterious, stoic presence.
Does the play ultimately score? Yes, but it’s more of a modest layup than a dazzling dunk. There’s no problem with the acting or the staging, it’s just that the writing doesn’t go deep enough, sketching these characters rather than really filling them out.
The play runs through Nov. 1; visit lunastage.org.