Monday, Oct. 5, 2009

The Drama On The Ground

Marquette's WASP Drama Is Compelling

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The Marquette University Theatre Department opens its season with a production of Phylis Ravel’s Censored On Final Approach. It may be a bit long (the show is some 2.5 hours long,) but Ravel puts together a very compelling drama here.

Playwright/Director Phylis Ravel draws the story directly from history. During World War Two, many of the men who served as military pilots were serving overseas. With so few pilots in the states, there were job openings for women to serve as WASPs--Women Air Service Pilots--civilian pilots in a variety of different capacities, most prominently flying planes from factories to military bases and serving as pilots for toe targets used in anti-aircraft training. The men who had to serve with them on the ground were far from welcoming. Ravel renders this drama with a very compelling set of characters. Some of the events, particularly towards the end of the play, feel a bit long-winded, but on the whole this is very, very interesting stuff.

One can’t help but feel that a half hour or so could’ve been trimmed from the script, but the production does a wonderful job of animating what Ravel has written nonetheless. The play begins in 1955 as a few female air veterans are meeting to discuss old times . . . and one asks the other about what really happened to a certain pilot who crashed as she was coming in for a landing. The official report had an entire paragraph blacked-out on it and one veteran had seen the report prior to the censoring of that paragraph. What really happened? The rest of the play tells that story. 

Kelsey Lehn plays Elizabeth Langley—a woman who grew up in a military family who wants to help out the country in the cockpit of a plane. Lehn sparkles with an impressive amount of aggressive energy in the role. She is joined by a somewhat diverse group of characters who all share a love of flight. Jennifer Mitchell plays the Catholic Minnesotan girl Mary O’Connor whose love of flight is matched by her moral purity. Then there’s Gerry Hansen—a pilot played by Allie Bonesho who shares Langley’s feisty passion, untempered though it may be by a general lack of understanding of military protocol. Finally, there’s hard-drinking Catherine Watts—played by Kirsten Benjamin. This core cast holds the central drama of the play together remarkably well, even if some of the supporting cast don’t always bring the right amount of tension to the world around them.

The drama is at its best when the women are interacting with each other. The scenes with others on the military base, though largely written pretty well, don’t come together onstage with the kind of impact they really need to be able to keep the drama moving efficiently. The scenes between the pilots work well enough that the problems with the rest of the drama don’t seem nearly as significant as they could be. Lehn, Mitchell, Benjamin and Bonesho have a eminently enjoyable dynamic going on between them that cleverly brings out some of the best moments of Ravel’s script.

Marquette University’s Censored On Final Approach runs through October 11th at the Helfaer Theatre. A concise review of the show appears in this week's Shepherd-Express.

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