When Ashlee, one of the girls competing for glory in “Dance Nation,” says, “Life is weird, and hard,” she pretty much sums up the premise laid out by playwright Clare Barron in her Pulitzer Prize-finalist script.
Onstage in its West Coast premiere presented by San Francisco Playhouse, the show aggressively explores the inner and outer lives of 13-year-olds on an Ohio competitive dance team in pursuit of a national trophy in Tampa Bay.
Portrayed with guts and gusto by grown women — directed by Becca Wolff, the cast is uniformly good — these girls are filled with anything but sunshine and rainbows (though in one scene, one does have a plastic toy horse on hand).
At times, their concerns are authentic: The team’s star Amina (Indiia Wilmott, who refreshingly doesn’t look like Reese Witherspoon) wants to stay on top, but also tries to maintain a sense of humility — be it put-on or not — and rapport with her teammates.
Then there’s Zuzu (a believably questioning Krystle Piamonte), often a step behind Amina, literally, but who gets to dance the lead role in the piece about Gandhi.
Also, dance master Pat (Liam Robertson) is appropriately, realistically tough on the dancers, though it’s interesting that Barron chose to write the role for a man.
And when the girls often ask, “Are you mad at me?” that also feels real.
Yet when Ashlee (a strong Lauren Spencer) delivers a meandering, strident, power-and-sex obscenity-laden “I am woman” monologue, it feels more like a playwright trying to throw in timely political matters than a 13-year-old’s anxiety.
Likewise, changing-room nudity at the outset and continued attention to blood — be it from a fall, a bite, or menstrual — come off as more as an attempt to be edgy than provocative ways to explore issues and emotions.
Meanwhile, the remaining team members — Julia Brothers as Maeve, Ash Malloy as Sofia, Mohana Rajagopal as Connie and Bryan Munar as Luke, the only boy — get lost in the shuffle.
In multiple roles, Michelle Talgarow is sympathetic as the dancers’ moms, though she could have been given more to do.
Interestingly, too, there could be a bit more of Kimberly Richards’ fine choreography in the show.
While it’s understandable that Barron’s aims for “Dance Nation” are to dig deep into psyches by going beyond what’s naturalistic, still, the drama might resonate more with even more focus on the physicality of the dance practice, among the biggest factors in creating prize-winning performers.
Presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Where: Kensington Park Hotel, 450 Post St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 9
Tickets: $35 to $125
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org