Friday's performance of Ugly Ducklings was appropriately a benefit for GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) for Safe Schools. Carolyn Gage's play explores homosexuality and coming-of-age issues at a summer camp in Maine where homophobia and cruelty are festering.
In StageQ's production (running through Oct. 21 at the Bartell Theatre), Angie (Andrea Kleiner), a naïve and earnest camp counselor, has a fascination and flirtation with Renee, a lesbian with a shock of fuchsia hair and a big chip on her shoulder. Renee is played by Riley, whose slim-limbed slouch and restless gestures underscore her character's wounded and combative nature. Angie is in turn the object of a teen camper's affections. Toni (Marian Herzog, all insolence and surliness) is a teller of tall tales whose bitter demeanor has put her on the outs with other campers and counselors, except for Lisa (Emma Lehker), a sweet little girl whose adoration of Toni proves to be perilous. Director Jan Levine Thal has coaxed natural performances from her young actresses, helping to steer the story away from melodramatic waters.
We know teenage girls can be vicious, but the adults at Camp Fernlake are having their own contentious dealings with each other. Overseeing the group is camp director Charlotte (Heather Renken), who has an imperious attitude and an obsession with preserving the campers' "girlhood." Her own homophobia becomes even sadder when she reveals a story of unrequited love from her own youth.
Ugly Ducklings addresses complicated issues, sometimes with a light touch and sometimes with too heavy of a hand. Though I occasionally felt manipulated, I was impressed with the work of the cast and crew.