Culled from Peiffer’s own experiences coming of age in a predominantly white, conservative town in Ohio, Usual Girls follows Kyeoung, a Korean-American girl growing up in a similar community in that state, from the elementary school playground into her twenties. As played by the adorable, mighty and heartwrenching Midori Francis, Kyeoung immediately sets herself apart from her childhood peers, and not just by virtue of race: We glean early on that she has a somewhat troubled home life, with a father who will reveal himself to be uniquely if unintentionally abusive—a tortured, lecherous alcoholic, later introduced in his full wretchedness by a creepy, moving Karl Kenzler.
But Kyeoung has somehow emerged from this, at least by early appearances, an indomitable free spirit—and thus, ironically, vulnerable to more abuse from her peers. In the hilarious opening scene, set in the third grade, she and a pair of friends—played by Abby Corrigan and Nicole Rodenburg, two of the excellent young actresses who adroitly traverse the mostly female characters’ paths from giddy pre-adolescence to the more complex, darker terrain just beyond it—titillate each other with details about sex gleaned from their parents’ magazines and catalogs. Their fun is interrupted by the only other speaking male character, a whiny, racist, budding schemer named Rory (who will later go to Wharton on a full scholarship), played with oozing menace by Raviv Ullman, who tries to blackmail one of them into kissing him.
Kyeoung promptly puts the little jerk in his place, earning at least one buddy’s awed admiration. But as Usual Girls progresses, and she and her friends encounter the social pressures and expectations that accompany the blossoming of young women’s bodies, Kyeoung begins to find herself increasingly alienated, and subject to vicious rumors. The cruelty of girls, and women, towards each other is a factor that has perhaps gone underestimated amid recent enthusiasm about women’s empowerment; Peiffer acknowledges it head-on, while stressing its roots in a power structure that encourages us to compete for male attention, in all its manifestations.
Indeed, the constant looming of men as dark forces in Usual Girls, without a single mitigating factor mentioned on behalf of the gender—even Rory’s racism and misogyny are linked directly to his dad—is the play’s biggest flaw, possibly betraying its young author’s zeal to drive her points about the patriarchy home as starkly as possible.
But Peiffer and director Tyne Rafaeli also show sophistication and boldness in acknowledging other factors that can encourage women against their own self-interest and each other’s. The driving pace and lean muscularity Rafaeli establishes is enhanced by blasting popular songs from recent years and decades between scenes, including tunes that promote faux male sensitivity—part of the subject of a fevered, very funny monologue a woke Kyeoung hurls out at one point—and stereotypically girlish, potentially destructive decadence. Jennifer Lim, elegant and poignant as a woman revealed to be Kyeoung at a later date, addresses the power of other media, from Disney movies on, in prodding women to equate sexual desire with subjugation.
After we witness Kyeoung come close to breaking and, after a troubling epiphany, begin to take steps towards healing self-actualization, there is a final scene that, while powerful, feels gratuitous or perhaps misplaced—reminding us, again, that Peiffer is still a developing artist, with less experience than talent or passion. But Usual Girls offers abundant and glowing proof of those latter assets, in a work that will stay with you long after the curtain call.