Facts are one thing. Truth, sometimes, is another.
Though rumors of a "pregnancy pact'' by high school students in Gloucester nearly a decade ago proved to be false, they reflected the sobering social reality that some teenage girls have babies because their lives are so circumscribed they can't imagine any other goals or any future beyond the here and now.
Kirsten Greenidge wrote a play about that reality, and a very good one, too. Titled "Milk Like Sugar,'' it's now at Huntington Theatre Company, directed by M. Bevin O'Gara, who elicits vivid performances from her young cast.
As with other Greenidge dramas like "Bossa Nova,'' "Splendor,'' and "The Luck of the Irish,'' the latter of which premiered at the Huntington four years ago, "Milk Like Sugar'' features characters who are as complex as the choices they face. This consistently impressive Boston-area playwright does not condescend or judge, but seeks instead to understand. Greenidge examines the forces that shape her characters not with the gimlet eye of the sociologist but the searching gaze of the dramatist and the heart of a humanist. We care about them because she does.
Greenidge also has a great ear for dialogue and is skilled at crafting compact plots whose stakes are clear and high. When combined with her overarching gift for empathy, the result is a dramatic window onto how people talk and behave as they first chafe, then battle, against the constraints imposed on them by circumstance. (A notion underscored in "Milk Like Sugar'' by Cristina Todesco's chain-link fence-like set design.)
In "Milk Like Sugar,'' the horizons of existence are so narrow for a trio of 16-year-old girls that they talk about getting pregnant like it's a combination of status symbol and declaration of independence. "Won't need moms no more if we each have tiny little babies made just for us, right?'' says Annie (a subtly effective Jasmine Carmichael) to her friends Talisha (Shazi Raja) and Margie (Carolina Sanchez).
Margie is already expecting, and Annie and Talisha decide that they will get pregnant, too. The three of them converse excitedly about having a joint baby shower the way other girls might talk about going to the prom. But Annie starts to doubt the wisdom of their pact as she slowly begins to feel the stirrings of ambition — for college, for a larger life. Greenidge incorporates telling details that show us what Annie is up against, such as when the hyper-aggressive Talisha mocks her for raising her hand in class "like some punk Poindexter.''
So now Annie confronts a dilemma: remain loyal to her friends — who are not nearly as introspective or ambitious as she is — and go ahead with the plan, or find her way out without the benefit of any kind of road map. "If you go back on your word life's gonna get awful lonely for you, that's for damn sure,'' Talisha warns Annie.
Further complicating matters is Annie's mother, Myrna (Ramona Lisa Alexander), who seems determined to undermine her daughter's studies — always finding a chore for her to do when Annie needs to do her homework — and generally to maintain a low ceiling on the girl's expectations. An aspiring writer who cleans offices for a living and is seldom without a cigarette, Myrna had gotten pregnant before she was out of junior high school. There is love between mother and daughter, but the relationship is also freighted with resentment (Annie is hurt and bitter that Myrna did not even call her on her 16th birthday). It's a volatile mixture that seems certain to eventually explode. Yet Greenidge's insightful understanding extends to Myrna, too; the mother carries her own burden of disappointments.
Rounding out the cast of characters in "Milk Like Sugar'' are Malik (Marc Pierre), a studious and conscientious high school senior who studies the sky and stars through a telescope, and whom Annie envisions as the potential father of her child; Antwoine (Matthew J. Harris), a sensitive tattoo artist who develops a certain chemistry with Annie; and Keera (Shanae Burch), an ultra-religious classmate who tells tales of a happy home life that contrast sharply with the tensions in Annie's household. In a strong cast, Burch stands out with a performance that is by turns funny and achingly poignant.
The costumes by Junghyun Georgia Lee are sharply individualized and reflective of the personalities of each character. M.L. Dogg's sound design makes important contributions to the mood of the play, providing the soundtrack to exuberant dance sequences during which Annie and the other girls seem to be completely free of care.
But Greenidge is too honest a writer to let that be our final glimpse of Annie. The girl may look at the stars through that telescope, but the playwright does not understate how hard it will be for Annie to reach them.
MILK LIKE SUGAR
Play by Kirsten Greenidge. Directed by M. Bevin O'Gara. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Feb. 27. Tickets: 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org