Two young white men kneel facing each other, holding a flannel shirt between them. The young man on the left is wearing a red polo shirt and has dark hair. The one on the right is blonde and wearing jeans and a gray T-shirt.
Peter Stielstra (left) and Joe Lewis in Girlfriend at PrideArts Credit: Jenni Carroll

The titular girlfriend in the local premiere of the two-person musical (book by Todd Almond, music and lyrics by Matthew Sweet) kicking off PrideArts’s 2022-23 season never appears. Referred to only fleetingly, she is nevertheless both presence and absence throughout the story of two young gay men who fall in love after their high school graduation in Alliance, Nebraska, in the summer of 1993. 

Girlfriend
Through 9/25: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM, Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway, 773-857-0222, pridearts.org, $35 ($30 students and seniors)

Will (Joe Lewis), directionless and only beginning to come to terms with his sexuality, is given a mixtape—that ultimate symbol of affection and commitment back in the 90s—by Mike (Peter Stielstra), an athlete with both a domineering father and a girlfriend who conveniently lives out of town. Beginning with a tense date at the drive-in, Will becomes closer with the tightly wound Mike just as the clock begins ticking toward Mike’s departure for college at the end of the summer.Folks escaping stultifying small-town life has become a trope for contemporary gay storytelling, but Almond’s script and Sweet’s songs foreground Mike and Will’s emotional growth more than dwelling on the homophobia around them; the latter feel like music that 90s teens would be into. Nevertheless, the two characters are very aware of being constantly watched. At one point, Will breaks the fourth wall to accusingly ask the audience, “What are you looking at?” Lewis and Stielstra are excellent, harnessing both Will and Mike’s New Relationship Energy and burgeoning self-awareness. The house band under the direction of Robert Ollis and stage direction by Jay Españo expertly capture the frenetic excitement of young love.