As the lights come up on History Theatre’s world premiere of “God Girl,” the audience is treated to the bouncy 1974 hit song “Rock the Boat.” It’s a satirically apt anthem for Kristine Holmgren’s autobiographical play about breaking down gender barriers in Protestant churches.
Many don’t recall that while women won the right to vote in 1920, newspapers routinely segregated employment ads into “men’s only” and “women’s only” jobs until 1973. The 1960s and ’70s were the front lines of a wave of feminism that exposed and attempted to redress systemic gender inequalities and societal prejudices and assumptions. It’s the world that Presbyterian pastor Holmgren came of age in, and her play explores her experiences of the collision between feminism and sexism when she set out to seek ordination in 1975.
The young Holmgren (played by Summer Hagen) is an optimistic Macalester graduate who has entered an elite East Coast theological seminary on a wave of female enrollment. As a pioneer of sorts, she’s prepared to face skepticism at this venerable and previously male-only institution. What she doesn’t expect is outright belittlement by her professors, hostility from her male classmates and sexual harassment from her mentor.
Holmgren has lots of material to work with here, from the school dean (a creepily sinister Richard Ooms) intent on subverting his female students in order to maintain the old-boys-club atmosphere of the church hierarchy to the sanctimonious pastor (Sean Dooley) who uses his role to attempt a seduction.
What’s missing is the editorial shaping that could give the material more impact.
Despite Ron Peluso’s snappy direction and set changes that cleverly amp up the energy, “God Girl” too often derails itself with meandering scenes that stall the pace. For example, Dooley’s character reveals himself as a self-promoting opportunist within the first few minutes of the sermon he delivers in the first act. We don’t need several more minutes of the same to get the point.
Similarly, lengthy scenes in which Kristine tries and fails to communicate to her mother how difficult her sojourn has become tend to devolve into a wordiness that defuses rather than enhances the impact of what she’s experiencing.
The flaws in the script don’t diminish the significance of the historical perspective Holmgren highlights in “God Girl.” In today’s world the feminist movement of the 1970s is often dismissed as a quaint if shrill sideshow rather than a step in an ongoing journey. Holmgren’s play reminds us where we came from and how much boat rocking remains to be done.
Lisa Brock is a Minneapolis writer.