Dear Diary LOL
Lead Artist: Francesca Montanile Lyons
Directed by Francesca Montanile Lyons and Michael T. Williams
Presented by AntiGravity at the New Ohio Theatre
September 26-29, 2018
What is the state of the t(w)een diary today? While small books with even smaller locks or doodle-encrusted journals presumably still dot the bedrooms of the nation's youth, Dear Diary LOL takes us back to a time when our current age of web-fueled oversharing was in its infancy and the best repository and audience for one's adolescent turmoil was a crisp, blank, private page. Presently enjoying an encore run at the New Ohio under the lively direction of Francesca Montanile Lyons and Michael T. Williams, the comedic Dear Diary LOL was co-created by Lyons and the ensemble cast using the actual diaries of six 12-16 year-old young women writing in the late 90s and early 2000s, some of them performers in the show. The dialogue, directed primarily at the audience, comes verbatim from these diaries, with each performer speaking mostly from a single diary that is not her own. Constructing the play in this way neatly avoids offering the characters as types -- the nerd, the princess, and so on -- and instead provides intriguingly intimate and consistently funny snapshots of what it means (and feels like) to grow up as a woman in America.
Dear Diary LOL opens with some play on gendered expectations: a pair of women (Lyons and and Nikki Hudgins) in pink hard hats and equally pink moustaches end up tossing away their imaginary jackhammers to open an excavated box of secrets—a trove of diaries (the material lining the lid of the box is the same as that of the sparkly curtains across the back of the stage, placing us, perhaps, inside that box). Lines from the diary of Alexis (Kelly Conrad) quickly extend the emphasis on gender roles: she knows that, as a newly minted teen, she is "supposed to live and breathe boys, friends, and clothes" and then notes she has been doing that for years already. In addition to Alexis's musings, we are made privy to the self-explorations of Meg (Megan Thibodeaux), Tatiana (Jessica M. Johnson), Ella (Alicia Crosby), and Natasha (Jenna Strusowki). These young women are presented as classmates, and the play's progression is loosely organized around themes -- such as dreams, which here include both a wedding involving a celebrity and parentally approved sex play -- or events -- a school dance, a sleepover, a field trip -- while another framing device is literally a frame, fittingly at once mirror and window.
As one might expect, the diarists express a lot of confusion, anxiety, and desire for love (variously conceived): one, for example, doesn't want to be labeled a slut when starting a new school but does want to experiment with boys. Another recites a poem about her loneliness in the midst of a scene at a school dance, a smart contrast to the giggly camaraderie that functions as the public face of such angst. Interestingly, the "LOL" of the title seems to acts in some cases as a distancing tactic (a rhetorical strategy with a storied literary pedigree), providing a degree of separation from less "acceptable" thoughts even in a text supposedly without an audience. Of course, there is a strain of argument that diaries typically aren't meant to be truly private; they are certainly written for at least an imagined audience, one that is often explicitly addressed or acknowledged, and we can observe the diarists trying on adult self-presentations and modes of expression.
On the whole, Dear Diary LOL keeps things light -- after all, it's easy to laugh because wholly expected (and depending on your own youth, relatable) when a teen declares her sadness "infinite" -- but some darker patterns and subtexts do emerge. We witness how the young women have learned to play hard-to-get and not to reveal their romantic interest. We see them watch a famous queer film kiss but pointedly not express any potential queer desire. Tatiana, as a young woman of color, bumps up against racism, but she rationalizes one of these occurrences because she likes the boy involved, and Ella similarly makes excuses for bad male behavior, showing how early a patriarchal society inculcates the same attitudes that we are at this moment watching unfold around the Supreme Court nominee hearings.
Ultimately, though, this is a hopeful show, complete with an earnest unifying musical moment that recalls Sense8's use of "What's Up," another 90s staple. The cast members, who expertly execute some exasperated flops onto a bed, skillfully suggest the evolving individuality of the young women and display great comedic chemistry, including with Williams as "Brian," who stands in for various boyfriends and romantic interests as a sort of grinningly vapid universal male. The musical cues and recreation of late-night AIM chats lends the production a little extra nostalgia for those who grew up in the right period, but the show also reveals how much about being a young woman, especially the stressors, hasn't changed in very long time. So maybe we can see there a reminder, amidst the laughter, that we can work to make that change happen. Dear Diary LOL, like the formative years that it conjures, goes by all too quickly. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler