'Chalk Boy' hits every note of compelling story

From the moment you walk into the theater, you are in the environment of Clear Creek, Wash., where the play “The Chalk Boy,” presented by Cockroach Theatre, takes place.

Troy Heard, the scenic designer, brilliantly brings the entire town into view from chalk art on the walls and floor (by Gina Quaranto and Ali Fathollahi) to tree branches hanging from the light grid. Ginny Adams’ lightning also helps immediately transport us in time and place so effectively, there is no question about where we are at any given moment. Add Kyle Boatwright’s haunting underlying score that enhances the mood of many scenes, and we are wholly submersed in this black comedy.

Using the mystery of the disappearance of Jeffery Chalk, the most popular boy in school, as a catalyst, playwright Joshua Conkel’s story questions whether our lives are predestined or a string of random acts. In the end, have we captained our journey or were the legs of the trip preplanned by some cosmic authority? Conkel’s main characters are typical angst-ridden high school kids, but the depth of this production belies that fact.

Heard, as the director, has paid close attention to detail and utilized every available inch of space in the small theater to great effect. He’s brought out an intensity and strength in the production, moving his four actresses seamlessly from place to place and delving into the very soul of what motivates them.

The four talented ladies use the full instrument of body and voice so that even when their backs are to us on the 180-degree thrustlike stage we know and understand their thought processes.

The play begins as narrators Lauren Radley (Nicole Unger), the peppy girl who leads the Christian Athletic Club, and Trisha Sorensen (Brenna Folger), the girl people both admire and hate, welcome us in a short bit of audience-participatory fun. They effortlessly start to lead us through the six parts of the play in fickle schoolgirl fashion where friendships are forged, dismantled and re-forged.

Memory McAllister brings just the right amount of pouty fear and indignity to her role of Penelope Lauder, the bad girl from the wrong side of the tracks, who is so deeply in love with Jeff that she’s convinced herself she’s pregnant.

Natalie Senegal shows a depth of sadness lying below the surface in her role of Breanna Stark, the lesbian whose parents have left her emotionally abandoned, searching for love and happiness.

Unger and Folger both play multiple parts, and the ease with which these two actresses switch characters is nothing short of amazing. The change in tonal inflection and cadence of phrase, the attitude of stance and movement, is so complete that the simple addition of a pair of glasses, pink sweat pants, or baseball cap brings them fully to life.

How could the abduction of a young star athlete be funny? What happens to the girls, how does the absence of the Chalk boy affect the town and its inhabitants? Who ends up happy and accepting of what life has dealt them — or was it the choices they made — as a result of what happened? Swim upstream to Clear Creek and find out.