If the 1950s were a time when social roles were carefully defined, this held true all the more within the circumscribed mores of a prep school. Mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, followed the prescriptions of their social circles, and people on the outside constituted a danger to all in this protected sphere.
In “Touching a Goddess” Princeton playwright Marvin Cheiten, who himself attended Rutgers Prep and Princeton University, steps into this 1950s world in a play that counterpoints a narrowly focused nuclear family with a teenaged son and daughter defining their own identities through the relationships they develop at Raritan Prep.
Bracketed by the brother, Harry, sharing his memories 50 years after the play’s action, the play explores the development of a friendship between his sister, Suzy, and a new girl in school, Terri.
Suzy is petite and pretty, smart, an achiever, an athlete at the top of her game, and pretty much an all-around girl — well, maybe that’s a “goddess.” Played with verve by Phoenix Gonzalez, Suzy faces a challenge when Terri comes to the school for her senior year, which leads to a serious self-reckoning.
Close upon her arrival at Raritan Prep for her senior year, Terri (Lisa Pettersson), a tall, galumphing, enthusiastic, gangly, and socially clueless girl, challenges Suzy’s team in an intramural basketball game and wins. When Terri suggests another type of contest, the same thing happens. Suzy takes on the bigger girl like a little terrier biting at that pants leg of an unlucky human — despite the fact that Terri is a head taller than her.
Terri truly sticks out like a sore thumb, her barely tucked in blouses, dingy skirts, and tennis shoes and socks standing in sharp contrast to the pleated skirts, sweaters, and saddle shoes of her classmates. It is difficult to see what the well-put-together Suzy sees in Terri — it may in fact be that Terri breaks through the narrow strictures of the prep school to express a real humanity, despite the awkward package she presents.
As the two girls become closer, Suzy’s brother, Harry (Harrison Hill), senses a danger to his sister and warns her off of Terri, an act that he comes to regret. Hill is a little stronger as the young Harry, the annoying, nerdy kid brother who is trying to grow into his body and make it with girls.
Other prep school students include Suzy’s friend, Barbara (Kate Young), a conventional teen with a fairly narrow worldview, and Harry’s friend, Dicky (Joseph E. Thomas), the suited up preppy stereotype whom one can imagine smoking his pipe in his law office years hence. Together Barbara and Dicky draw the outlines of a world that tolerates little diversity.
Harry and Suzy’s mother (Wendy Rolfe Evered) and father (Christopher Berger) appear to be more stereotypes of 1950s parents than real people.
The scenery, the costumes, and the music between scenes adds to this snapshot of the 1950s. Occasional pieces of dialogue, however, felt very current and undermined somewhat the sense of place.
The play’s characters are well drawn but the development of the relationships between them could have stood more fleshing out. The short scenes that worked well in Cheiten’s last play, “The Star,” were not as well suited to the dramatic demands of his plot in “Touching a Goddess.”
In this play social mores ultimately win out, however, against the individual’s pursuit of happiness. But what can you expect from the 1950s? It took another decade for the baby boom generation to throw out the establishment and let the individual have his/her way.
“Touching a Goddess,” Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater. Friday and Saturday, August 28 and 29, 8 p.m.; Sunday, August 30, 2 p.m. Allied Playwrights presents Marvin Harold Cheiten’s newest play directed by Dan Berkowitz. $16. 609-258-7062. www.Marvincheiten.com.