Go Back to the ’90s with Catastrophic Theatre’s First Suburb

First thing’s first. If you’re going to see Chana Porter’s First Suburb over at Catastrophic, I hope you like the ‘90s.

Set sometime in the early ‘90s, in a “village” named Dickinson (after Emily) within a planned community, 11-year-old Miriam and her friends are growing up. There’s Miriam’s best frenemy Cyndi, who’s “pretty … and mean”; Miriam’s shrimpy brother, Miccah; and Miccah’s friend Steve Hope, the beautiful green-eyed artist Miriam falls in love with. And then there’s Andy, that kid who lives in that house, the one partially hidden behind overgrown trees and brush. You know, the house neighborhood kids traded stories about before daring each other to run up and knock on the door.

First Suburb is a memory play, a fictional autobiography with adult Miriam setting the stage and occasionally interjecting, as do several of the other characters. And like a person’s memory, the play is honest in its messiness. The characters are broad and exaggerated, some gaps have been filled, and some things are simply made up. The ‘90s setting means the ‘90s references come fast and furious, especially the music – Ace of Base, Nirvana, Bikini Kill, EMF, 4 Non-Blondes, Boyz II Men, Guns N’ Roses, and many more. The memory aspect also means that everything, from Color Me Badd’s 1991 hit “I Wanna Sex You Up” to 1996’s teen witch movie The Craft, seems to exist together at the same moment, because that’s how Miriam remembers it. It’s fun, and it almost distracts from the ways in which the play occasionally falls victim to the pitfalls of its own conceit, meaning First Suburb – like a stranger recounting a part of his or her childhood at a dinner party – can feel self-indulgent, inaccessible and aimless.

But First Suburb succeeds where it catches certain aspects of growing up: the intensity of your feelings and relationships, the furtive and awkward grasps at your burgeoning sexuality, just how big and stifling your small cul-de-sac in Maryland can seem. They’re situations and feelings expertly brought to life by the adult cast, starting with Tamarie Cooper.

Cooper’s Miriam is a good kid from a good family. She is the heart of the play as Miriam, an 11-year-old you want to root for and who is endlessly relatable in her awkwardness. Cyndi, meanwhile, is a great contrast to Miriam, played with a perfectly measured mix of know-it-all condescension and impulsive, petty “mean girl-ness” by Jeanne Harris. The two play off each other well, and many of their scenes – like the one where they mimic their parents – add great depth and color to the world Porter’s created.

Jovan Jackson’s Steve Hope, like Miriam, is a good kid. He does his homework and has a supportive dad who makes them lasagna for dinner while watching Jeopardy. But underneath it, there’s a lot more going on: Steve is being raised by a single dad; Mom, a drug addict, is out of the picture; he’s afraid his passion for art will get him picked on in high school. Jackson is subtle in expressing Steve’s insecurities and the ways in which they get exploited. Steve’s older, the most mature of the group, but just as vulnerable as the others. Jeff Miller, on the other hand, is all restless pre-teen energy as Miccah. His delivery and sense of timing garners a lot of well-deserved laughter from the audience throughout the show.

And then there’s Andy. Kyle Sturdivant is an ominous presence when he appears on stage, a foreboding air surrounding him that evokes a sense of unnamed dread. Despite this sense of dread, it’s a pleasure when Sturdivant is on stage, and his telling of a “fairytale” is one of the play’s most affecting moments.

Sturdivant, who doubles as the production’s director, coaxed strong performances out of his cast, but those strong performances were not always appreciated because of the blocking. Too many scenes left sections of the audience staring only at the back of the actors’ heads, missing important moments in the process. I completely missed one moment of reunion between Cyndi and Miriam at the end of the play, as all I could see was the back of Cooper’s head.

Ryan McGettigan’s set, Tina Montgomery’s props and Macy Lyne’s costumes work in beautiful harmony. On the incredibly effective chalk-drawn map of the neighborhood, different locations appear – Miriam’s bedroom, her family’s kitchen, Cyndi’s bedroom, Steve’s house – usually signified by one type of furnishing – a bed, a table and chairs, a couch. The ease with which we move between scenes keeps up the play’s momentum. Like the musical cues and references, the ‘90s appear in the props, from Lisa Frank licensed merch to a Trapper Keeper, cassette tapes and boombox. And with the bold patterns, bright colors and plaid that appear among Lyne’s costumes, well, if you told me Lyne hopped in a time machine to raid the wardrobe departments of those early ‘90s TGIF sitcoms – you know, from the Full House/Family Matters/Step by Step years – I’d believe you.

Aside from one moment at the end of the play, when the music was overwhelming loud, the sound design, by Shawn St. John, is on-point, especially the seamless shifts from non-diegetic to diegetic sound. Full Media Jacket is responsible for the video design, something I probably would have appreciated more if two of the screens weren’t essentially behind me. When I wasn’t turning my head trying to catch everything, I felt like I was missing something. In Charlie Brown-style, there adults of this world are absent, their presence felt only in their disembodied voices and their words projected up on the screens. It is effective, but I think I caught two mistakes, one was the word “mall” misspelled and the other one where a word didn’t match the line the voice actor actually delivered. Hudson Davis’s lighting design pulled everything together and, certain effects, like a camera flash going off, work well.

Despite some great performances, First Suburb is hampered by its staging, and its script leaves a little something to be desired. But if you, like Miriam, were a child of the ’90s, then a little nostalgia alone might be worth the trip.