Credit: Liz Lauren

“A guy walks into a bar . . . , ” or so goes the familiar joke setup that works because guys are always walking into bars. Except in Rebecca Gilman’s Twilight Bowl, now playing through March 10 at the Goodman Theatre, the token guy never enters the scene. Over the course of the show’s 90-minute running time, not one man makes an appearance onstage—or even so much as issues a cue backstage.

Twilight Bowl first premiered at the Goodman two years ago as part of the 2017 New Stages Festival. For its second run, all six members of the all-female ensemble are reprising their original roles, imbuing the production with the sense of familiarity that gels any female friendship after long enough.

“We were able to go deeper into these characters this time, because we were given more time and we were able to live with them for a year in our heads, and so everything just marinated more,” says Anne E. Thompson, who portrays one of the show’s six characters. “This time we got to talk about these characters and their shared histories and put in some of that backstory that roots them to each other, and so the moments feel like they have a different weight than they did the first time.”

The 2019 iteration is a significant production for both the Goodman and for contemporary theater, especially in Chicago. During the 2015-’16 Chicago theater season, only 36 percent of the plays were directed by women, and only 25 percent were written by women, according to research by Chicago-based artists Kay Kron and Mariah Schultz. The gender disparity between men and women in the artistic positions of set design, lighting, and sound were even worse. In Twilight Bowl, all of those positions are filled by women (all of whom are local). Coming from the Goodman, one of Chicago’s better-known theaters, this move carries weight, especially in the #MeToo era.

Thompson says the space immediately felt safe. Director Erica Weiss made sure that everybody in the cast and crew felt heard, encouraged, and celebrated on a daily basis, even in moments of frustration.

“One of the first things that I said on the day of first rehearsal was—without presuming anyone’s experience in terms of their working environments in the past—that especially in light of the broader cultural conversation that we’re having, this process feels somehow healing in whatever way that meant to people personally,” says Weiss. “That was a huge prerogative of mine, because that can mean whatever it means to any individual person. It was important for me to articulate that as a way of setting off the safe space. One of the things that I have observed, in terms of that safety, is that we have talked a lot about the freedom to fail and flail in the room, and try something and have it totally not work and break into giggles, or be like, ‘Well, this was off the rails.'”

She continues: “I think it created an environment that was loose enough and supportive enough that we maybe got away from any feeling of embarrassment or [feeling] that they might be judged in that moment.”

Twilight Bowl was originally commissioned from the Pulitzer Prize finalist Gilman by the Big Ten Theatre Consortium, a collegiate conference made up of the Big Ten’s 14 theater departments and schools, which began commissioning plays by and about women in 2014 as part of its interscholastic New Play Initiative. The intention was to provide more roles for women in their 20s.

“They did not have plays for their students, essentially,” Gilman says.

Twilight Bowl begins with four young women clustered around the table of a bar within a small-town Wisconsin bowling alley. Gathered for what Gilman once wrote in an earlier draft of the play as a baby shower—”or something,” adds the playwright—the women are giving a send-off to their friend Jaycee (Heather Chrisler), who’s headed to prison in the morning for selling prescription meds. The other women in attendance represent different parts of Jaycee’s past. There’s her younger cousin, Sam (Becca Savoy), who’s nervous about leaving her hometown for Ohio State that fall; her oldest ride-or-die friend, Clarice (Hayley Burgess), who works at the Twilight Bowl but is growing weary of the low pay and the lack of long-term career prospects it offers; and then there’s Sharlene (Thompson), the God-fearing Christian who tries to see the best in each member of the group—especially Jaycee—despite their foul mouths.

It’s a scene full of biting one-liners—you can tell these women have grown up together, reckoning constantly with each other’s evolving personalities—that pierce an otherwise intense period of anticipation for an experience none of these girls can imagine: Orange Is the New Black is their only frame of reference for what life is like for a woman behind bars.

The bowling-alley bar is the epicenter of the entire play. Once Jaycee is off to prison, updates as to her incarcerated life are relayed to the audience through conversations between her friends “on the outside” and the bartender, Brielle, expertly portrayed by Mary Taylor.

Gilman’s original draft of Twilight Bowl featured a male bartender, “And because he was the bartender, everyone kept talking to him, and he took on this significant role,” she says. “And then I thought, ‘You know what? Why is he a guy?’ So I got rid of him.”

Brielle’s slight removal from the core group of friends lends her the omniscience of any good bartender character, but her female perspective keeps the characters’ conversations firmly rooted in the exploration of their shared, small-town female identity, as varied as the particulars of these young women’s individual experiences. Maddy (Angela Morris), a preppy Chicagoan who is a “friend” of Sam’s from school, dominates the middle third of the play as a fully formed foil to the other girls’ small-town culture and politics.

“I think that when we think about rural life, [when] we think about working-class people, too often we think about what the male experience of that is, and we do not think about what life is like for women in small towns,” says Gilman, who herself grew up in a small town in Alabama. “I felt like there’s a whole lot of people out there who are working really hard and doing their best, but they have limited opportunities because capitalism is unfair to most people. And I wanted to look at what that was like, specifically what that is like for women in the United States. Because I think that, in addition to obstacles brought about by class disparity, there is also obviously gender politics in play for these women.” That sense of transition is woven into every scene due in large part to the set’s design.

“This is their place, their pub, an extension of home, so it is important to have pictures of the teams and trophies peppered through the bar and not just in the trophy case,” set designer Regina Garcia writes in an e-mail. “These are reminders of the ‘good ole’ days,’ a time for family and community. However, no one is visiting the bowling alley anymore, and traffic is less than ideal. The furnishings are simple and dated. It is time for these ladies to make other choices.”

The choices and the reality these women face are very specific to their geographic location and the timing of their coming of age (the play starts two years in the past and ends in the present day). The specificity of the roles that result from this setting is what Gilman and Weiss agree the theater world needs more of for young women. The more roles for young women that are written, and the more culturally and demographically specific they are, the more inclusive the stage becomes.

“The need to expand the canon, the contemporary canon, of female roles also includes women of color across the cultural spectrum, because I think we are still missing a lot of perspectives of female characters across the border of cultural experiences,” Weiss says. “I am really interested to see more and more stories that focus on these specific cultural experiences through a female lens, and especially a young female lens, voices that just are not taken particularly seriously in society across the board.”

It’s the Bechdel test, really.

“I think what we’re starting to realize is women have complex lives in and of themselves that oftentimes do not have particular attachments to men, and that those stories are also interesting,” says Thompson. “As you see in Twilight Bowl, on paper all of these women can seem kind of similar, but once you get into each of their stories, you feel for every single one of them, and you start to see just how different they each are. I’m on board for more weirdo women that you want to spend an hour and a half with, not just for a few minutes in the second act.”   v