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WRENS WRENS
by Anne V. McGravie

Rover Dramawerks

Directed by Jason Rice

Set Design – Patrick S. O'Neil
Costume Design – Carol M. Rice
Lighting Design – Catherine M. Luster
Sound Design – Matthew Edwards
Properties Design – Terrie Justus
Hair/Wigs/Makeup Design – Roxi Taylor

CAST
Dawn – Ella Mock
Jenny – Ashley Markgraf
Gwyneth – Kaycee Reininger
Doris – Emily-Ann Moriarty
Cynthia – Devon Rose
Meg – Annika Horne
Chelsea – Molly Bower

WRENSWRENS






Reviewed Performance 5/15/2014

Reviewed by Rachel Elizabeth Khoriander, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

When I set out to review Wrens, I was excited to be making my first sojourn to the new space Rover Dramawerks has been calling home since January of this year. Located in a shopping center on the NW corner of Parker and Hwy. 75, the new space is not only convenient but also hospitable. Featuring a welcoming lobby and intimate black box theater, it is tastefully decorated and professional, while ultimately maintaining the affable and familial atmosphere for which Rover is known.

Something else Rover is known for: bringing new and rediscovered gems of theater to the stage. And Wrens proves no exception. Written by octogenarian and Scottish-born Chicago resident Anne V. McGravie (who will be present for a few May performances in Plano), the world premiere was produced in 1996 by Rivendell Theatre Ensemble at Footsteps Theatre in Chicago. Starring an all-female cast, the semi-autobiographical Wrens is set in 1945 on a remote naval base in the Orkney Islands and focuses on the relationships built between some of the female members of the Women's Royal Navy Service (WRNS, or Wrens) as they are confronted with the end of the war in Europe.

The women have all emerged from different British countries, social classes, and marital statuses and have been living practically on top of one another in a small Nissen hut throughout the war. The divergence in their backgrounds and the close proximity necessarily lead to some gossip-slinging, squabbling, and differences in opinion. Nevertheless, they all seem to be meeting the end of the war with a feeling of ambivalence. This hesitation stems from both the contemplation of returning to a way of life that is now foreign and potentially unfulfilling, and from the cloudy sense that there can be no true return, that nothing will ever be the same.

Rover Dramawerks’s cast and crew have pulled together to create a production strongly supporting a script that equally emphasizes each woman's individuality and oneness with the group. This is done not only with the help of dialect coach Yvonne Vautier-DeLay, who assisted the cast in excellently performing Scottish, Welsh and English accents, but also through set and costuming.

The action of the play occurs exclusively in the women's sleeping quarters, specifically created by Set Designer Patrick S. O'Neil to be both functional and provide a sense of community. In addition, the set perfectly captures the shifting boundaries of personal space and overlapping squares of community within both the hut and the theater itself. The edges of the stage are demarcated by a small brick wall which effectively separates the audience's space from the players' space, though clearly we are meant to traverse this boundary and visually trespass onto the players' space. The back wall of the set consists of the expected corrugated steel affixed with some shelving and inset with small windows dressed with blackout curtains. Beds are tubular steel and are somewhat weathered and dingy, apparently from heavy wartime use. Two doors, one shielded by a floor-length blackout curtain, accommodate a flurry of comings and goings, emphasizing the fact that there is little solitary time for any of the hut's inhabitants. The central features of the hut, around which the women revolve, are a clothing rack (which holds all of their uniforms and robes) and a solitary black iron stove used to dispose of cigarettes or (against regulations) clandestinely prepare tea.

Similarly, Costume Designer Carol M. Rice, Hair/Makeup Designer Roxi Taylor, and Properties Designer Terri Justus have done an admirable job of avoiding anachronism and maintaining diversity among women who spend so much of their time in identical uniforms or standard-issued robes. Uniforms are historically accurate as are the props, right down to the type of cigarette lighter used. Individuality is shown through the characters' hairstyles, nightgowns, and undergarments. Again, each of these is historically accurate, and each reveals slight differences in the girls' demeanor.

Sound and lighting are accurate. Catherine M. Luster’s lighting is unobtrusive and keeps the audience appropriately focused. Sound, by Matthew Edwards, generally consists of era-appropriate songs playing before and after each act, and the song choice, though somewhat dictated by the script, is spot-on. One quibble: there were a few times I wished for microphones, namely when the air conditioner began to kick on and off during the performance. The small space really doesn't require microphones, but the closeness of the space also means that the air conditioner can seem particularly loud and overpower those speaking on stage.

The actresses themselves do a superb job of differentiating their characters, which is quite a challenge given the identical uniforms and quarters.

The Welsh contingent, Jenny and Gwyneth, are played by Ashley Markgraf and Kaycee Reininger, respectively. Both deliver their lines in a more fiery fashion than the other actresses, but differ in morality, conservatism, and motherliness. Markgraf's confident air and somewhat stilted movements reinforce the matronly aspects of her character, just as her straight-backed posture and clasped hands support her conservative moral opinions. Alternatively, Reininger's aggressive playfulness and occasional heckling antagonism underscore Gwyneth's decreased reliance on religion. Her concerns and comments seem to grow from a secular view of her world, and her energetic, swift movements mark her as someone living squarely in the moment, possibly to avoid the uncertainty of her future. In every scene she is in, Reininger has great presence.

Devon Rose plays the English-born patrician Cynthia as somewhat stuffy and slight. Her delivery is often condescending, but not so much so that the audience loses interest in her. In addition, her manner of moving is quite graceful, which lends authenticity to Cynthia's aristocratic origins. Rose has a less energetic stage presence than the other actresses, but exhibits more brooding and stateliness that befit her character.

Cynthia's fellow countryman and "socialist" friend, Doris, is played capably by Emily-Ann Moriarty. Moriarty distinguishes her character from the other women based on her habit of continually reacting physically to what is said. Whereas other characters may get lost in their own thoughts, Moriarty's Doris is always fully engaged with those around her, which seems appropriate given Doris's preoccupation with writing. In addition, Moriarty's raised eyebrows, matter-of-fact speaking tone, and small shrugs denote Doris's general pragmatism and forbearance while simultaneously expressing dispirited uncertainty concerning her place after the war. Delivery is important as Doris speaks some wryly humorous lines, and while occasionally her timing is slightly off, Moriarty secures most of her laughs.

Yet another Englishwoman, Ella Mock's Dawn is prettily sulky and proper and appears at first to almost be a younger version of Cynthia. Unlike Cynthia, however, Mock's Dawn seems less capable and sure of herself, but both actresses deliver their characters with a certain dreaminess; Cynthia's appears in her thoughts about her fiancé, while Dawn's shows up as preoccupation with stories in her magazines. One of Dawn's peculiar quirks is her predisposition to repeatedly address people by their first names, which can be difficult for an actress to pull off without dialogue becoming stiff or stilted. However, Mock handles this with great aplomb. In addition, Mock's dramatic acting is continually excellent as certain tragedies of the play unfold. Though I greatly enjoyed the portrayal of each of the characters, Mock's portrayal of Dawn is the one that stuck with me and seemed to blossom with further layered meanings even after I left the theater.

The final Englishwoman, Chelsea, is portrayed by Molly Bower. Chelsea is a difficult role to play as she hardly speaks or interacts with the other characters. Indeed, the sole time Bower does speak, her voice is a bit weak as if from disuse. The remainder of the time, however, Bower succeeds in making Chelsea present and aware while simultaneously removed. In particular, during a few moments where she is alone on stage, she fills the passing moments with meaning. Here, we do see the Chelsea behind the mask, though sometimes Bower's facial expressions seem overstated in comparison to her other acting.

Rounding out the cast is the lone Scot, Meg, delightfully played by Annika Horne. Horne's Meg is a mesh of dichotomies, equally lithe and awkward, friendly and spiky, independent and needy, naive and knowing. In short, she is a girl on the verge of becoming a woman, and Horne expresses this masterfully. In addition, Horne is excellent at emoting--the audience can feel her joy, her frustration, her confusion, and her pain. This further increases the audience's awareness of Meg's youth and exuberance, which is key to understanding her character. In addition, Horne has superb comedic timing; laughs are abundant, and her mirth radiates when she is on stage.

In short, all of the actresses are extremely well-cast. Each performance is sharp and distinctive, and the ensemble spirit is mellifluous. This is essential, as character and relationships lie at the heart of Wrens. This is WWII after all. The bonds forged during wartime are the stuff of lore, and gender relations changed both during and after the war. Wrens addresses these topics while confronting the impossible choices that women were sometimes forced to make during this time, and often still are.

To be sure, there are some feminist rumblings within Wrens that could cause some to fear pedantry, or a storyline crumbling into cliché, but they needn't worry. Everything is handled subtly and not hypercritically, and the plot line stays fresh. So fresh that you just might conclude your evening as I did, with much food for thought and the burgeoning desire to launch a more in-depth exploration of the history of not only the WRNS, but also of Ms. McGravie herself.




WRENS

Rover Dramawerks
221 W. Parker Road, Suite 580
Plano, Texas 75023

Runs through June 7th

NOTE: Clove cigarettes are smoked during the production.

Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 pm, with one matinee on Saturday, May 24th at 2:00 pm.

Tickets are $16.00 for the matinee and Thursday shows, and $20.00 Friday and Saturday. $2.00 student and senior discounts, and group discounts are offered.

NOTE: Playwright Anne V. McGravie will be in attendance at the May 23rd and May 24th performances and will be participating in a talk-back and reception after the matinee performance on May 24th. In addition, at 10:30 pm, after the May 23rd and 24th performances, Rover will present two of Ms. McGravie's short plays: Bags, and Alice and Margo. Admission is a suggested $5 donation.

For information, go to www.roverdramawerks.com or call the box office at 972-849-0358.