Thirteen-year-old girls are a force of nature. Literally. Menstruation. Masturbation. Womanhood begins. Vacillating between ambition and fearfulness, bold flirting and shy wondering, the female struggle begins, sometimes with feral ferocity.
Dance Nation at the Wilma Theater is a potent and entertaining play about a group of seven girls , one boy (Justin Jain, wonderfully befuddled in this female world), and one man (Keith Conallen, superb in his wardrobe of track suits), their adored tyrannical dance teacher, sometimes pontificating, sometimes sincere.
The cast of dancers — Taysha Maria Canales, Kimberly Chatterjee, Kimberly Fairbanks, Suli Holum, Campbell O’Hare, Brett Ashley Robinson, and Julianna Zinkel — is terrific.
The “team” of young dancers is preparing for the first of several competitions. The upstage wall features a huge ledge filled with glittering trophies. They want to win the next one and the one after that.
They also want to “dance away” all the suffering of humanity — a lovely, childish wish. They each want to wear the crown won by the best solo dancer. They want and want and want.
At a time when the female role — psychologically and sociologically — is based on “agency” and “empowerment,” Clare Barron’s play wrestles with competition and jealousy and envy and the tenderness and sweetness of girlhood friendships.
Dance Nation is about more than puberty — there is a great central number that brought down the house where they all celebrate their “perfect [p-word].” It’s also about how ruthless and demanding a career in dance is.
There are shades of Mean Girls, or maybe the crazy rivalry of The Wolves, and even the self-destructive madness of ballet films like The Red Shoes and Black Swan.
But eventually it dawns on you, from various threads in various conversations, that this is a memory play. These girls are now women looking back on the teenagers they were, even as they are girls imagining the women they will become.
It takes too long to realize that this glancing back/glancing forward is the perspective, that we are all the kids we were and the adults we became.
It’s noteworthy that the cast at the Wilma is uniformly young and strong and shapely and pretty. If the director, Margot Bordelon, had included women conspicuously older and fatter, with the occasional bad knee and some gray hair, the poignancy of the script would have come through more vividly.
“Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I really went for it,” one girl says. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if Dance Nation really went for it — relinquished some of the charm and entertaining adorableness and gave us something more profound.
Through Nov. 10 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St.
Information: 215-546-7824 or wilmatheater.org