Monday, May 20, 2019

Of Women Acting, Valiantly: 'Into the Breeches' Explores Efforts on the Homefront...and Centerstage -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Into the Breeches!
a recent play by George Brant
directed by Jessica Thebus
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru June 16

One of the abiding tenets of my life, and this blog, is that the importance of the arts goes far beyond leisure, frivolity and entertainment.

Whether through watching or participating in music, theater, film, literature, comedy, painting, dance or other art forms, individuals and society can--and should--find enlightenment, serenity, therapeutic benefit, genuine sustenance and more.

We often hear about arts education being the first to go when when schools are faced with funding challenges, but to my mind, the arts should be the first to stay.

This isn't specifically the main point being made in George Brant's likable play, Into the Breeches-- now running at Northlight--but it's part of the message that I drew.

The play, directed here by Jessica Thebus, takes place in 1942, when many American men had been enlisted to fight in World War II.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
From the famed Rosie the Riveter poster to films such as Mrs. Miniver, I've long been aware of how women supported the war effort in very tangible ways.

I hadn't considered it before--and though the play is historically-based, I'm not sure quite how widespread this was--but in Into the Breeches, Brant informs that one of those ways was by continuing to stage theatrical productions, despite the deficit of male actors.

Brant initially set the play in Providence, Rhode Island--that city's Trinity Rep commissioned him and premiered Into the Breeches--but with a bit of customization from the the Morton Grove-native and Northwestern alum, as seen in Skokie the story takes place in Evanston.

There, Maggie (the delightful Darci Nalepa) has long aided her husband, the artistic director of the fictional Oberon Theatre, following his lead to the point of being derisively dubbed, "Andrew's Parrot."

But the unseen Andrew has, like many, been called to the front, and though Maggie initially faces resistance from Oberon's main benefactor, Elsworth (Fred Zimmerman), she aims to keep the theater afloat (with her husband's blessing).

She enlists the star--but as we learn, unpaid all these years, even as less-noted male counterparts were--actress Celeste (Chicagoland treasure, Hollis Resnik).

And with the help of costumer Ida (Penelope Walker) and production assistant Stuart (Mitchell J. Fain)--a man not selected to serve--she embarks on holding auditions.

Along with Elsworth's wife, Winifred (Penny Slusher), two young women with husbands serving overseas--Grace (Annie Munch) and June (Molly Hernandez)--become involved.

I won't tell you about any more of the narrative, which does precede somewhat predictably even as it broaches--and resolves rather formulaically--matters of race, homosexuality and gender equality.

Marketed as a comedy, the two-act, two-hour Into the Breeches is more what I'd call a "nice play" than a brilliant or scintillating one.

But it's easily watchable and I give it props for original subject matter, which is far more slyly resonant today than it may seem.

And the entire cast does really fine work.

It seems somewhat boggling that as the Oberon's first female foray, Maggie opts for the troupe to stage Shakespeare's 4-hour, 3-play "Henriad." (Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, Henry V)

I guess it serves to suggest than anyone can--and should--have grand ambitions when it comes to theater, and art.

And Into the Breeches offers a heartwarming reminder that, for reasons some may not understand, even under difficult circumstances, the show must go on.

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