Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's recent review of The Lehman Trilogy
WRENS, written by Anne V. McGravie, didn't debut till 1996 and has never been produced in St. Louis till now, according to Prism Theatre Artistic Director Trish Brown. It seems shocking, given all the theatre in this town over the past 100 years. Playwright McGravie died in 2022. According to the director: "Anne was a Wren who joined when she was only 17. She wrote the play from her own experience. The first production was [in] 1996 at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble in Chicago. That's when I discovered the play. I then used it as my MFA Thesis project to receive my degree in Directing from Chicago Conservatory of the Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. Anne and I had a long friendship spanning (from) 1998 until her passing last summer."
The new cast features the troupe's first all-women ensemble, in the Kranzberg Arts Center's black box theater. So I'm in doubly unknown waters, when you combine a local premiere with the remoteness of the Orkneys.
Yet something very familiar emerges in the endless struggle between duty and personhood: at the point where human rule-making smashes into human necessity. It's a fast-paced show that could perhaps be a smidge more emotionally immediate. There's lots of first-rate sentimental music from sound designer Jacob Baxley. And the name of British film star Celia Johnson is invoked at one point, which gave me a twinge on me old 'eartstrings.
The acting style likewise feels a bit uncharted: with hardly any overt stylization or calculation on the part of the seven young, gifted actresses on stage, putting us instead in the "blinding now." And, guided by rules and regulations, some of these characters still find fulfillment and romance, while others are hunted down by something much worse.
Avery Lux plays Jenny, while Ashley Bauman is Gwyneth: two of the Wrens. One is bleakly naturalistic, while the other has a lighthearted can-do spirit of optimism. And all the characters talk in different accents, as per the script. So I can't fault any stylistic conflicts that might inevitably arise, as they're from all over Britain, and the two leads, Jenny and Gwyneth, are admirably different. Together, Lux and Bauman show great professionalism in a story of survival and sacrifice that (despite plenty of happier moments) turns highly dramatic in Act Two.
Clues gradually emerge, telling us that one of the youngest women (played by the excellent Sam Hayes, who also does the very good costuming) is pregnant. Until then the worst of their problems is having no hot water, and tea kettles that are slower than the change of seasons. And somehow, somewhere in all of the shifting group priorities, the play grabs on to a reality of its own, and suspense takes hold. It doesn't feel like a play about backroom abortions (which take place between acts), but much of Act Two refers to the subject with increasing desperation.
And it's a great showcase for young actresses. Jade Cash plays the youngest (at 17 and a half), who started out life as an infant given up to a convent. Suddenly she's bewildered over why she exists at all, in a world where abortion is an option. It's done perfectly, and it's a weirdness that comes out of nowhere. It wasn't done for the sake of pathos, thankfully, and it doesn't come off that way.
Excellent Sadie Harvey and Sarah Naumann play signal corps girls Cynthia and Doris, respectively. Cynthia has secret knowledge of the war, which she won't share, and Doris has gentle, schoolgirl insights into the other young service-women's inner natures, which (when they finally are shared) set the story inside a glowing frame in our minds: a traditional, valedictory moment in theatre, which the playwright surprisingly cuts off in mid-stride.
Camryn Ruhl plays the glamorous Chelsea–not to be confused with Cassandra, a girl very often spoken of, from a neighboring military hut but whom we never see. Chelsea's choice is made into a grim, cynical decision in the play, after she's bonded to a married officer for status-related reasons, we are told. Ms. Ruhl, as Chelsea, looks like a movie goddess, and approaches her decision with a ruthless, bitter reserve. And later "pays a price." It's not my strong suit, summing any of this up, as a male critic, and I shouldn't throw around politically charged language nearly 80 years later. But (to my other point) there are a few other women besides Cassandra who are often referred to in the dialog and whom we never see. It adds to a shadowy confusion. (Welcome to the endless house of mirrors of womanhood, I suppose.) Maybe they could look through binoculars, out a window, when referring to these unseen characters. Anyway, strangely, it also contributes to a genuine sense of indelibility among these very particular Wrens, once we do get them all sorted out.
I would say, "make it all 10% funnier," but then you'd lack the blur of the show's naturalism. Is it all too anti-choice? Or is it really anti-backroom abortion? The drama is governed, in this case, by the women's fear of male authority. So maybe it's actually very pro-choice, in its own way.
In this wistful, glowing spotlight on history, you leave your presentism at the door.
WRENS runs through September 24, 2023, at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand, St. Louis. For tickets and more information please visit www.prismtheatrecompany.org.