The use of sports and athletic competition as a vehicle to address teenage relationships has been presented on the theatrical stage many times over. Female protagonists have been portrayed in such works as The Wolves, which revolved around a girl’s high school soccer team. In Gracie Gardner’s play, Athena, the sport is fencing.
We are introduced to Athena and Mary Wallace, two high school juniors that practice at a New York City fencing facility. Athena is brash, self-confident and an indifferent student with no real friends. She lives with her aloof father in a city apartment. Mary Wallace, a product of the New Jersey suburbs, resides with her supportive mother and father and is someone who takes her studies seriously. They meet during an after school practice one day and agree to become sparring partners. Over the course of the one-act, 90 minute show, we learn about their lives, their fears and hopes. The goal for each is to get to nationals as, hopefully, a springboard to a college scholarship.
The playwright, Gracie Gardner, has written two fully developed characters that talk and act like young high school women. The dialogue comes across as real and unforced. Layering in the world of fencing, a sport many audience members may not be familiar with, elevates the production beyond just two girls hanging out, conversing and commiserating.
Shannon Helene Barnes, as Athena, is assertive and headstrong. She also gives the character a vulnerability as she conceals her dispiriting home life. Olivia Billings, as Mary Wallace, initially comes across as someone who is the exact opposite of Athena in every way. While she is tentative, overly pleasing and somewhat naive, Ms. Billings imbues her portrayal with determination and moxie. Both actresses are also very convincing fencers.
There is one other actress in the show. Julia Crowley is in the last scene, which is somewhat unnecessary. Not to give away any spoilers, but I think the play would have been more powerful and satisfying if the show ended in the blackout before her appearance.
Director Tracey Brigden skillfully turns what could have been an insipid and thriling exercise in teenage angst into an engrossing, highly satisfying exploration into the lives of two young individuals. She incorporates a few distinctive flourishes, such as slow motion, that amplify the action on stage.
Fencing coach Michael Martin has readily prepared the actresses for Mark Silence’s fencing sequences. They are convincingly staged and provide a heightened sense of drama to the production.
Set Designer Emmie Finckel’s raised platform set with white painted fencing lanes, is simple, yet appropriate Lighting Designer Adam Lobelson’s blackouts are well-timed and his disco lighting a lot of fun. The Sound Design by Jason Peck is effective without being obtrusive.
Athena, another quality production from Thrown Stone, playing through August 6. For information on dates, times and tickets, go to: https://thrownstone.org/events