The three main characters of “Turning” — which will be presented through March 7 with social distancing precautions at the Lackland Performing Arts Center in Hackettstown — can perform impressive gymnastic moves. But they can’t dance. At least at the moment, as the play starts.
They’re female American Olympic athletes, attending a ball on the ocean liner that is taking them to compete in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, and the guys never ask them to dance. Why, we never learn. Maybe just shyness. But Ada (Taylor Congdon), Jennie (Emily Williams) and Mary (Ally Borgstrom) wait — talking, drinking and horsing around — for most of the play. In a running gag — literally, a running gag — Jesse Owens (Deonté Griffin-Quick), destined to be the hero of the Games, races by every once in a while, training by doing laps on the ship while everyone else is partying.
The 75-minute, one-act play, written by Darrah Cloud and developed by Centenary Stage Company’s Women Playwrights Series, seems a bit aimless for a while. But eventually, it turns into something else, with a surprising final scene (in which Owens finally comes to three-dimensional life) that solidifies Cloud’s purpose and the play’s meaning. “Turning” ultimately ended up being much more profound than I would have predicted, halfway or even three-quarters through it.
While Owens’ Olympic adventures have been extensively written about over the years, not much is known about the women’s gymnastic team (“turning” is another word for executing gymnastic moves). But Cloud researched the subject and learned enough to form the skeleton of her story.
The three women in the play all come from immigrant communities. Ada and Jennie are from Italian-American families in Union City and Newark, respectively. Mary is Irish-American, and from Brooklyn. They are acutely aware of the fact that while they and their families traveled from Europe to the United States to make a better life for themselves, they are now returning in an attempt to — symbolically, at least — prove their superiority. They are also aware of the threat that Hitler represents, and assume that this trip will probably be a brief moment of glamor in their somewhat drab lives.
They are all single, though the sharp-tongued but sensitive Ada — the play’s main character — has an on-again, off-again relationship with one of the guys who is ignoring them. Mary is religious and naive but also, it turns out, the one who indulges the most in the alcohol she knows she shouldn’t be drinking. Jennie is bluntly outspoken, uncomfortable in the dress she has to wear for the occasion and, Ada and Mary suspect, gay.
Each of the play’s characters delivers a soliloquy at one point, and when they do, the others do dance/gymnastic moves behind them, adding an elegant, dreamlike element to the production. Also, the most important moment in the play is underscored by one of the characters doing a floor exercise, tying together the athletic journey the characters are on with the play’s more universal themes.
Which, it turns out, “Turning” has a lot of. Even with its small cast and modest running time, “Turning” asks big questions about how we can live together, and move forward, with all of our racial, religious, regional and sexual differences. It’s really about the enormous potential of the flawed country its characters will be representing in the big international event they are traveling to, and that makes it feel very contemporary, despite its historical setting.
One final note: This was my first indoor show in almost a year. (I have been to some outdoor shows during the pandemic, but nothing indoors.) While it seemed odd, at first, to be in a theater where people are spaced out from each other, wearing masks, this was quickly forgotten once the onstage action began. It seemed, for as long as the play lasted, that life had returned to normal. I hope all those who haven’t had a chance to experience this yet get to do so, soon.
“Turning” will be presented at the Sitnik Theatre at the Lackland Performing Arts Center in Hackettstown at 2 p.m. Feb. 28 and March 7; 7:30 p.m. March 4; and 8 p.m. March 5-6. In addition, there will be a live stream of the Feb. 28 show, followed by a talkback with Cloud and others involved in the production. Visit centenarystageco.org.
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