By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The program for Bucket Productions' latest show, the Southwest premiere of Anne V. McGravie's Wrens, declares that the troupe is "dedicated to the production of fun, entertaining, watchable theatre. We don't have any social agendas or themes, and we have no pretense of a grand artistic vision." It's a refreshingly earnest manifesto by artists in a medium that is so crowded with ambitious ideas, there's barely enough room for the actors on the stage.
But Wrens is a curious choice to be included under this give-the-people-what-they-want banner. McGravie is a Scottish-born playwright who has skewed her work toward the experiences of women who've been pushed into corners by either history or their own actions. Her seven-character look at the end of World War II through the eyes of WRNS (Women's Royal Naval Service) members, who were essentially officers' secretaries and assistants, percolates with observations about a woman's professional vs. private life in the context of mid-century patriotism--that is, men are allowed to sacrifice everything for country, whereas women are asked to keep a portion of themselves reserved for these men, or their children, or their parents and siblings, if they're unmarried. Throw in a subplot that blossoms into the plot about a young woman imperiled by the decision to abort a child she was intimidated into conceiving, and you have a couple of mighty powerful social themes that might be "watchable," but are hardly, in the last analysis, "entertaining" and "fun."
Director Jason T. Rice has chosen an unmediated, almost voyeuristic approach into the lives of these seven women, who are huddled together in concrete and tin barracks temporarily constructed in Scotland's Orkney Islands. There is almost no music, no lighting effects, and no real drama until the second act, when things get a little too dramatic, thanks to a crisis that seems shoehorned into the proceedings as a device to force these women to confront their lives and their enforced friendships in a way that the artificial environment created by the Royal Navy never would have. The material here is too issue-laden to allow the kind of realism that Rice grafts onto it. Although almost everyone in this female septet has a shining moment or two, the final effect of Wrens is like drinking one cup of lukewarm, unsweetened tea after another. As if to compensate, the last few cups are laced with so much cream and sugar that your dulled palate simply feels overwhelmed.
The play begins on the eve of the expected announcement on VE Day (May 7, 1945), and ends the night after that announcement is made official. We spend most of the first act getting to know the various "Wrens," who are greeting the close of what has been, for some of them, a six-year interruption in their lives. The unofficial den mother is Gwyneth (Carol Blankenship), who's allowed to ignore the lonely post-war domestic fate that awaits her by focusing on the skirmishes that ignite between her unofficial charges. The co-mom of the brood is Jenny (E. Amber Singleton), a worrier who isn't afraid of asserting her conservative Christian views on unsanctioned sexual relations in the army (since men get lonely away from their wives and can't help it, women are to blame) yet still manages to pony up the nurturing when needed. Under their watch are Doris (Shonda K. Purvis), a journal keeper with socialist tendencies; Cynthia (Gay Smith), a cynical woman, emotionally bottled-up and apprehensive about making connections; Meg (Lissa Creolla), a brash 17-year-old orphan who utters the play's best line ("She's just jealous because she doesn't have my pinup-girl personality"); and Dawn (Teresa Heidt), the anxious, spoiled rich girl who becomes pregnant by a man who's not her boyfriend. (I swear, I'm not disclosing a surprise confession: Heidt might as well wear a neon sign that says "Knocked Up" 10 minutes into her dialogue).
Wait, I forgot about the seventh Wren, Chelsea (Pamela J. Schamberger), a young woman who doesn't speak a word until the very end of the first act, who smokes cigarettes the instant her barracks-mates leave, and whose spectral presence bodes ominously for another character's fate. I wouldn't characterize her last-minute function as a plot catalyst; the phrase "last minute function" works just fine to describe her role in this play. A rather portentous addition is an unseen island woman who periodically drags a stick along the corrugated tin sides of the barracks, protesting the Wrens' presence on her rural island.
One technical note about the performance I saw: Because Wrens, at least as staged here, is two acts of almost uninterrupted, unadorned dialogue, it would be advisable to shut the windows in front of the box where the sound and light guys keep vigil...especially if they're going to conduct a steady, whispered conversation during the first half of the first act. Because the setting is so intimate, and because the pace and tone are hushed and even dour, the slightest sound from anywhere but the stage can compete with the actors.
The women do provide a smattering of warm, funny, introspective moments. Carol Blankenship is simply superb as the wryly maternal Gwyneth, whose given to wonder "where are our medals?" both for their participation in the war and for their agonizing decisions about how to handle the pregnant Dawn's fate. She also manages an absolutely stunning British accent (noted with approval by a British audience member during intermission). E. Amber Singleton as the aggressively religious Jenny is a convincing, tight knot of conflicted feelings, wanting to condemn and console at the same time. Lissa Creolla as the bratty, nosy Meg is a charmer, but she pushes the vowels of her Scottish accent unevenly for comic emphasis. Still, the generally good quality of the accents here can be proven by the presence of two gen-you-whine British actresses, Teresa Heidt and Gay Smith, who don't throw the vocal training of their co-actors into sharp relief.