Two women in white fencing clothes. The woman on the left is white, and is in a kneeling crouch. The woman on the right is Black, and is looking down at the other woman, holding her fencing sword pointed down.
Athena at Writers Theatre Credit: Michael Brosilow

Whether by design or happenstance, Writers Theatre has focused on the theme of women in competition and collaboration this season. In Eleanor Burgess’s Wife of a Salesman, two actors portraying Linda Loman and the “woman from Boston” in a contemporary riff on Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman wonder why their characters in the play-within-the-play have to fall into the tired tropes of women fighting over a (mediocre) man, while they share their own stories about maintaining relationships and careers simultaneously.

Through 7/10: Wed 3 and 7:30 PM, Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2 and 6 PM; Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe, 847-242-6000,, $35-$90.

Now in Gracie Gardner’s Athena, we meet two high school girls who are competitive fencers. Over the brisk 80-minute course of Jessica Fisch’s staging, Athena (Mary Tilden) and Mary Wallace (Aja Singletary) feint, parry, lunge, riposte, and peel back layers of themselves even while wearing the protective garb of their sport. (Mary Wallace chooses a flat chest protector, and tells Athena, who sports one with molded breasts, “The plastic boobs just slow you down. They just guide someone’s blade right to a hit.”)

For whatever reason, women talking honestly about their lives without reference to male definitions of conflict and resolution still feels like a radical proposition (even decades after the Bechdel Test came into being). Sure, the two-character setup of Gardner’s play does mean that there are some binary differences between the two girls. Athena lives with her single dad in New York City and slips (underage, of course) into nightclubs where her older sister DJs. By contrast, Mary Wallace is a more sheltered suburbanite with a bookworm bent. (Though it’s worth noting that Athena gave herself that mythological name as a nom de guerre.)

But what’s lovely about Gardner’s play is how skillfully it intertwines the anxieties and doubts common to all adolescents with the growing confidence of the two as friendly competitors. The precise fight choreography of David Blixt and Christian Kelly-Sordelet, which plays out on Arnel Sancianco’s cool minimalist runway set (it almost feels like a Holodeck from Star Trek, particularly in combination with Paul Toben’s stark white lighting), provides cunning physical metaphors for the ways they get close, pull back, and meet each other head-on. The piste is both a proving ground for their desire to qualify for nationals (and possibly the Olympics), and a place where they concentrate on themselves and each other. If the final bout seems to be moving into a slightly predictable dynamic, that’s merely a minor disappointment for a play that asks us to consider the possibility that teenage girls know how to land hits, but also how to have each other’s backs.