KPBS AIRDATE: February 13, 2004
Next-door neighbors at the Old Globe’s theaters, one group should take wing and the other should hit the road. But both are stuck in place.
In William Inge’s quiet classic, “Bus Stop,” a group of misfits is storm-stranded in a Kansas café. The 1956 film proved to be the dramatic breakthrough for Marilyn Monroe. But the play is really an ensemble piece. Not much happens though there’s a seething sexuality beneath the surface: the café owner beds the bus driver. The wide-eyed ingénue sidles up to the world-weary professor. And the seductive saloon chanteuse half-heartedly deflects the advances of the virile and impetuous cowboy. The production’s problems surface in Joe Hardy’s ‘Director’s Notes.’ He sees these country folk as innocents from a simpler time. In fact, each is dragging around a fair amount of baggage, which generally remains unexamined here. Although all the actors are competent, few plumb the pain and suffering in these characters’ lives. Jonathan McMurtry’s professor is an outstanding exception, with his drunk, dissolute pedantry, his obsession with young girls and his own self-loathing. The set, costumes and lighting are spot-on, but the pace is pokey and we don’t ever get around to caring too much about anyone.
In the recently written, newly revised “Sky Girls,” playwright Jenny Laird dramatizes a fascinating chapter from WWII — the Women Airforce Service Pilots program, which trained 1000 females to fly military aircraft. Not only were these ‘WASPs’ never given military status, they were sabotaged by their misogynistic male counterparts. The life-force behind the program was Jackie Cochran, a real-life, record-breaking powerhouse pilot who initiated the training project and fought Congress to get the gals militarized.
The play premiered in Chicago last year, in a somewhat different form. It still needs work. Though Cochran and her Congressional testimony feature prominently — and repetitively — the piece focuses on five fictional members of the final class of WASP cadets, as they strive to earn their wings. It’s 1944, on an Army Air Force base in a dusty Texas outpost, and much of the women’s stage-time is spent getting in and out of flight harnesses. The rest is lying about on cots, acting more like sorority sisters than pilot pioneers. Each character is a Type, geographically and personally. We don’t learn much about them, which makes us unlikely to care what happens to them. Judith Hawking puts in a potent performance as Cochran, and Sarah Rafferty plays the loud-mouthed rabble-rouser with welcome spunk. Despite the terrific source material, there’s just too little action or dramatic conflict here. The sound, costumes and lighting convincingly evoke the period; the set is uncluttered, but the direction is sometimes fussy. Unlike its airborne characters, the play never really gets off the ground.
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.