Daphnee Duplaix and Arlene A. McGruder
in All-American Girls
(© David Wendell Boykins)
Daphnee Duplaix and Arlene A. McGruder
in All-American Girls
(© David Wendell Boykins)
A League of Their Own meets A Soldier's Play in writer/director Layon Gray's formulaic new drama, All American Girls, at the Actor's Temple Theatre. Set in 1945, the intermittently engaging work tells the story of an all-female, all-African-American baseball team, whose coach mysteriously disappears prior to a highly publicized exhibition match.

The parallels to the popular 1992 film about the first female professional baseball league are easy enough to see. But it's in the play's structure that the influence of Charles Fuller's 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning play becomes most evident. Both chronicle the efforts of a young African-American to get to the bottom of what looks to be a horrible crime -- as well as a possible cover-up -- against an African-American authority figure, and also feature interviews and flashbacks with those who were subordinate to the victim.

In All American Girls, that victim is Coach Hicks (Arlene A. McGruder), whose tough love for her players may have crossed the line into sexual abuse of one particular team member, Betty (Daphnee Duplaix) -- at least if the testimony of the shifty Charley (Ashley Jeffrey) can be relied upon. The stories of various team members show different sides to their coach, and it's initially unclear who is to be believed.

The search for truth is the mission of Laura James (Mari White), an intern at the newspaper, The Chicago Defender, who has somehow managed to pull some high-level strings to get the opportunity to interview the ball players. Unfortunately, White's lackluster performance robs several of the scenes of needed tension. The energy jumps back up for a number of the flashbacks, as the other performers demonstrate a nice mix of camaraderie and conflict.

Among the standouts is Catherine Peoples as Eddie, who has a brash, upbeat presence and an infectious smile. Chantal Nchako is also quite good as the strong-willed Jonnetta, who is plagued by a bad conscience. Duplaix nicely portrays her character's innocent qualities, but is less convincing when called upon to show off her meaner side. The most dynamic performance belongs to McGruder, who possesses an imposing physical stature that is just right for Coach Hicks, and presents the most complex characterization of the evening.

A previous version of Gray's play was seen in New York at the Midtown International Theatre Festival in 2006, under the title The Girls of Summer. The playwright has tightened up the work since then, excising a clunky framing sequence and heightening elements of the mystery. However, at nearly two and a half hours, the show could still benefit from judicious trimming, and suffers from an overdose of melodrama and sentimentality in the play's final scenes.