by Gail M. Burns August, 2005.
From 1942-1944 about 1,100 young women flew American military aircraft stateside in a program called WASP (Women Air Force Service Pilots). They transported planes from the factories to the bases, ferried military brass around the country, and made many other flights considered “a waste of time” for male pilots who were needed in combat. Despite the fact that they flew military planes, congress never granted them military status, which meant that they were not entitled to any veterans’ benefits. President Carter finally rectified that situation in 1977, 33 years after the WASP were unceremoniously disbanded.
This is a story that needs to be told, and Jenny Laird has taken a stab at it in her play Sky Girls currently on the boards at the Dorset Theatre Festival*. A museum is planned at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, where the WASP trained, and live theatre is an effective way of taking the WASP story and efforts to raise money for the museum on the road – I am just not sure that Laird’s play really does justice to the WASP. I am sure there are still some living WASP veterans and I would be interested to hear what they make of the play.
Of the six characters on the stage in “Sky Girls only one, American aviatrix Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran (1906-1980), is not fictional. Laird has created five young women from very different parts of the country and walks of life and placed them together in one barracks because their last names are at the beginning of the alphabet (well, except for Mags O’Brien who told them the “O” wasn’t negotiable but ended up in the A-M barracks nonetheless). Here they gossip and study and endlessly change clothes. Each is a broad stereotype and therefore none is very realistic, so it is hard to get too worked up over their personal troubles. It is slightly more interesting to hear their tales of frustration dealing with the Air Force commanders and their love of flying. It seems foolish now, but then people honestly believed that women might be or were physically incapable of piloting military aircraft.
I am sure that Laird has based her characters and stories in some part on the true life adventures of various WASP, but because they are obviously fictional, their stories are less compelling.
Another thing unique to this production that makes it hard to engage with these actresses and the characters they portray is that some of them mumble. Three of the cast are members of the DTF Conservatory Company, but comparing the credentials of the “real actresses” with the Conservatory members they all seem to be much the same age, in fact two of them were Conservatory members themselves just a few years ago. I applaud the fact that Dorset doesn’t use body mikes and feel there is no reason why director Frank Latson can’t get all six of them to speak up. Particularly weak in this department are Amy Coenen, a Conservatory Company member, as the dreamy DeLang and Stephanie Marquis in the pivotal role of Bishop. I know that Coenen’s character was supposed to be soft spoken, but I missed much of what she said. Marquis is often speaking over the white noise of an airplane motor, and consequently needs to make more of an effort.
Stand-outs are Meredith Handerhan as the forceful Mags, Alexis Black (a Conservatory Company member) as Lil, a Dixie chick who is unsure whether or not she wants to marry her childhood sweetheart, and Stephanie Moffett in a sassy performance as Jackie Cochran. The attractive Jenny Strassburg plays the naïve southern belle Breeny (misidentified in the program as Breezy) nicely. Coenen is definitely the weak link in the cast. Marquis is quite moving at times, when she can be heard, but I realized when I read the information in my press packet that I must have missed quite a bit because there were aspects to her character I didn’t catch.
Part of this is Laird’s fault. Playwriting 101 teaches that in the early scenes you find every excuse possible to have your characters call each other by name until the audience catches on to who is who. Laird is lazy in this respect, although the setting lends itself well to that type of dialogue. Also, the names by which the characters are identified in the program are not always the ones they call each other. Lil is called Lilian, Mags is called O’Brien, and Bishop is called by her first names, which, unless I am greatly mistaken, are Jeanne Marie.
The show has a bright and professional look despite the auditory problems. Latson moves his performers around in naturalistic and interesting groups on set designer, William John (Bill) Aupperlee’s open set. The upper bunks on the beds double as the cockpits of the planes as the girls take to the air. I was reminded slightly of Snoopy perched on his dog house fighting the Red Baron, but this is the theatre and I would rather have fanciful simulated flight than a Miss Saigon style helicopter descending from the flys.
Aupperlee has chosen to tie all the shows of the Dorset Theatre Festival’s 30th Anniversary Season together with a signature style grillwork of proscenium arches, where it is currently serving double duty as a medieval court of Chinon in “The Lion in Winter” and the WASP barracks in Sky Girls. I had fun imagining the arches in all their different uses (they also appeared in The Importance of Being Earnest, The Woman in Black and The Au Pair Man). For these two shows it was easy to see how they looked simultaneously medieval and industrial – a neat trick!
The costumes by April Cooper look appropriately military although not very authentic to the period. During much of the play the women are wearing nothing fancier than khakis and white cotton tank tops, but when Mags and Breeny dress up their ensembles aren’t very 1940’s – an era with a very distinctive look in women’s wear. Everything looked too casual and comfortable in a contemporary way. Possibly the use of period bras, make-up, and hairstyles would have given the women more of a World War II look.
Cooper has made an attempt to glam up Moffett as Jackie Cochran, a gal who was as determined to look like a woman as she was to fly like a man in real life. But her military skirt suit is ill-fitting and her wig unkempt. The real Cochran was much snappier looking. There is no need for Moffett to be a dead ringer for Cochran, but it would have been simple to mimic her tidy, military style.
The lighting and sound design are subtle and appropriate. Despite the hearing problems, I felt sure that it was the actresses who were speaking too softly, as opposed to Eliot Johnston’s sound effects being too loud.
While Sky Girls may not be the strongest show this season at Dorset, it does present an interesting piece of lost American history and give a bundle of attractive and talented young actresses a chance to strut their stuff. I hope that Laird eventually takes the script back in for retooling because I think she is very close to having a really exciting play on her hands.
The Dorset Theatre Festival production of Sky Girls runs August 4-10 and 16-20 at the Dorset Playhouse on Cheney Road in Dorset, VT. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission and is suitable for children 8 and up. For tickets and information please call the box office at 802-867-2223.
* I had not been to the theatre in Dorset since 1998, during which time DTF and the Dorset Players joined forces to completely remodel the theatre. It is beautiful! Unlike some $50-million monstrosities I could name, it manages to be both comfortable and accommodating to the audience as well as appearing well equipped on the technical end. Even the box office and management area looks appealing. The new playhouse incorporates wood and architectural features from the three area barns used to construct the original Playhouse in 1929, so the Playhouse retains its “Gee whiz kids, let’s put on a show in the old barn!” feel. Kudos to all involved in the design and construction of this gem of a theatre.
Gail M. Burns, 2005