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Mean volleyball vixens in The Secret Life of Girls 

Last Friday evening at ImaginOn, when the opening night performance of The Secret Life of Girls was over, director Nicia Carla came onstage and engaged the Wachovia Playhouse audience in an intriguing exercise. As the characters in Linda Daugherty's all-female teen drama returned to the stage, Carla asked the audience to place each one somewhere in the spectrum between absolutely despicable (stage left) and absolutely admirable (stage right).

Stephanie, the bitch goddess of the volleyball team, was a slam dunk for extreme left, even after evoking a modicum of sympathy toward the end of Children's Theatre's 64-minute production. On the other hand, the audience was wildly conflicted about where to place Abby, the aspiring volleyballer Stephanie ostracizes via texting, IM, and Facebook. Carla shuttled back and forth across the middle third of the stage in response to audience input, finally planting Abby slightly right of center -- third among the seven teen girls in order of virtue -- before a professional facilitator led a second round of discussions on gossiping, bullying, parenting, fitting in with the crowd, and finding yourself.

Daugherty's script is perfectly crafted to spark such public controversies and discussions. That's exactly where I think it goes wrong.

Abby stoically submits to Steph's decrees until she wins favor with the volleyball clique on the strength of her performance in the heat of competition. There are even whispers that Abby has the better serve! Then Abby and Stephanie are chums. Others are on the outs and, over her mom's opposition, Abby is complicit in Steph's cold cruelty.

All this while, Steph is still plotting to undermine Abby, so she's heading for disaster at the end of volleyball season in the championship game. Yet even after a second stint as an outsider, Abby is incurably addicted to Stephanie's favor. There are reasons to admire or despise this loyalty -- to see it as strength or weakness.

To Daugherty's credit, the other members of Steph's clique are textured during the political ups and downs: Rebecca, the clingy sycophant; Kayla, the discarded best friend; Anna Marie, the weaker version of Abby; and Sutton, the sunny opportunist. Every one of them would be more interesting, to my mind, if they were responding to an Abby who was consistently trying to do the right thing. Like a traditional heroine. The consequences of behaving like a more idealistic, quixotic protagonist would have been no less illuminating -- and perhaps a lot more gripping. Bonus: An extra 45 minutes of post-show ventilating and discussing wouldn't be necessary to complete the experience.

Just two weeks earlier, Children's Theatre artistic director Alan Poindexter had used an all-adult cast at the McColl Family Theatre in The Drama Club, Bob Inman's new high school-centric sturm und drang. So it was interesting to see Carla going in the opposite direction in choosing her team. For those who get to see both productions, the trade-offs are fascinating, but Carla's path seems better suited to the smaller Wachovia venue, where the authenticity of youth counts for more.

It also demands more proactive directing. Too much of Stephanie's bad attitude seems double-underlined in the early parts of Kristyn Callaway's performance. When the role becomes more complex and demanding, Callaway proves capable of nuances, textures and depths that seemed beyond her at the start. On the other hand, Chloe Aktas is pure perfection as Abby, soft and sullen as she undergoes her exile in the opening. Yet as we reach the denouement, there are tentative moments for Aktas, perhaps because Daugherty gives Abby's moral compass a couple of extra spins.

Adriana Jerez is deliciously lackey to the bone as Rebecca. The other standout among the high schoolers is Kali Hackett as Kayla, never so cool that we disbelieve her vulnerability. Or vice versa. Neither of the adults who fill out the cast has any problem with Daugherty's aversion toward stereotypes. Rebecca Koon delivers a precisely calibrated account of Abby's mom that gives proper weight to both her impassioned concern and, at key moments, her passivity. In dual roles, Donna Scott brings her distinctive edge to Coach and Sutton's mom, supplier of the all-important hair ribbons for the volleyball varsity.

Jay Thomas helps us to appreciate the speed and omnipresence of technology in his three-screen video projection design. Nothing generic or superficial here, though the IM could use a rethink. We see Macs and PCs -- real Web sites and assorted brand-name texting devices. When we see a Blackberry projected on the center screen, it belongs to an adult.

Some extra humor comes packaged with this electricity, plus photos of the hyped hunks the volleyballers drool over. Ribbons or not, these really feel like the secret lives of 21st century girls, and the current Children's Theatre keeps it real, sketching the jungle where they fight for popularity and survival.

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