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FLY BABIES

FLY BABIES

by Rusty Harding

Lunatic Theatre Company

Directed by Leigh Wyatt Moore
Stage Manager – Darby Villano
Set Designer – Rusty Harding and Kevin Paris
Sound and Lighting Designer – Richard Stephens, Sr.
Props – Team Lunatic, Crew and Cast
Costume Designer – Kasey Bush
Radio Announcers – Greg Cotton and Richard Stephens, Sr.

CAST
Nurse: Madyson Greenwood
Older Dotty: Fradonna Griffin
Lucy Powell: Brittain Monroe
Mazy Buford: Latreshia Lilly
Sgt. Lewis: Jake Blakeman
Young Dotty: Brittain Monroe
Pauline Yates: Madyson Greenwood
Hazel Ying: Debbie Fu
Peggy Taylor: Becca Tischer
Jackie Cochran: Laura Lester
Col. Thomas Evans: Nelson Wilson
Capt. John Whitaker: Salvador McCaffrey
Dianne Greely: Latreshia Lilly


Reviewed Performance: 6/18/2017

Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Sweetwater, Texas is a town just west of Abilene. It may be associated today with its annual Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup, but Sweetwater is also the home of Avenger Field, a municipal airport of little note, except that it started as a World War I flight training facility in the 1920s and became the home of an amazing story in World War II.

In the summer of 1942, the US Army took over Avenger Field and turned it into their all-female military flight training base. It was there female pilots were trained to fly military aircraft in order to free up male pilots for combat training. These pilots became the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs. Women took over the majority of non-combat flying in the Army Air Force. They were pilots before they qualified, and were hired as civilian pilots, but had to train under Army flight instructors in fighters and bombers, and learn the “Army way” of flying.

The summer of 1942-44 was also a time of culturally-accepted racism and sexism. These women were used by the military to help the war effort, and then tossed aside afterwards as if they had nothing to do with the war. However, in the past 20-years, they were honored and their stories began to be told by history for their contributions and sacrifice. Thirty-eight of them died in the service of the country.

One such story was written by Rusty Harding, local playwright and screenwriter. His story, Fly Babies, opened at the Bathhouse with a staged reading last year, but it’s getting a full production now as Lunatic Theatre Company gets Fly Babies into the air at Richardson Theatre Centre.

The set was the barracks and training rooms at Avenger Field, looking every bit like barracks looked. A few cots, a few posters of plane schematics and assignment boards, and steel lockers, Harding and Kevin Paris designed a set that compactly allowed all the action to take place in a single room. It doubled as a hospital room in the book-ended opening and closing. It was a very easy step back into 1944 with a single setting.

The set was lit very brightly most of the time by Richard Stephens, Sr., who also provided the sound track of the show. That included a series of sound effects, radio broadcasts, and projected movie reels about the WASPs in training. The radio announcers were Stephens, himself, and Greg Cotton, and it sounded very much like recorded announcements from radio in that era. One of the unsung great pleasures of this show was the music of the times, the Dorsey bands, Glen Miller and Benny Goodman, songs like Tuxedo Junction. That kind of swing music is so lively and upbeat even today that I saw members of the audience dancing along in their seats to the music.

Costumes were appropriately early WWII military, with khaki uniforms, drab green flight suits, and flowery print mid-leg dresses for the girls on their nights out. Kasey Bush really put these actors into the times and I suspect donning those costumes stepped the actors right into their 1944 characters.

This production was directed by Leigh Wyatt Moore, one of the founders of Lunatic Theatre Company. Her group of cohorts and production artists gave us the feel of a great collaboration working together on the vision of Harding and Moore to honor the women of the WASP program. But Moore’s direction also kept the story flowing quickly and seamlessly and gave actors a strong sense of who those characters were historically.

Fly Babies is a story of a mystery about the WASPs and the revealing of that mystery. Dotty was one of the WASPs who endured the program and found some of the racist policies to be too much to not challenge. Dotty was played as an old woman in a nursing home being visited by her granddaughter. Fradonna Griffin as the older Dotty was hospital-bound, feisty, a woman who had had a full life and was confident of her place, but when her Air Force granddaughter, Lucy Powell, played by Brittain Monroe, asked questions about her involvement in the WASPs, we saw a confident woman waver and have to reveal a long-held secret. That starts the story and leads back to 1944.

In walks the new class of WASPs, led by young Dotty, also played by Brittain Monroe, and we begin to see the story unfold. This Dotty is a young, pretty blond who has learned her flying skills from her crop duster pilot father. Monroe showed the confidence that we saw in that older Dotty, but 60 years earlier. Dotty is hit on quickly by army personnel and rejects their advances with a sarcastic attitude and a quick wit. Monroe’s sly smile when Dotty unleashes barbs against the soldiers showed a knowing that made her cute, funny and smart. But things in the barracks are not completely acceptable to Dotty, specifically in how a black maid is treated by the military brass. This created a lot of exposition about how blacks were treated in “this man’s Army” and Dotty sets out to right those wrongs. Monroe approached this conflict with sensitivity, the innocence found in a young girl, and the strength of a hero.

Mazy Buford was the recipient of that Army racial double-standard. Women were allowed to be part of the program, but fully-qualified black women were not. Mazy is a fully qualified pilot who got her license in France but who is not allowed to be a WASP and is relegated to maid. Latreshia Lilly played this part with a quiet approach to the discrimination, not causing waves or calling attention to herself. But she also gave Mazy a palpable resentment for how Mazy was treated. In time her relationship with Dotty created havoc for everyone, but their relationship is strong. In the end, Lilly came back as another granddaughter, this time Dianne Greely, to visit the older Dotty in the hospital and we learned how important that Fly Babies relationship really was.

Hazel Ying was played by Debbie Fu. This Chinese-American flyer who had piloted American military aircraft already and was probably the best of the WASP pilots of that class, is also the recipient of ridicule and discrimination. In those years Chinese were linked to the hated Japanese and her presence is a strain on the military flight instructors. Hazel Ying is the butt of hazing by the flight instructor. Fu gave her character a strength that could at one moment drop into unintelligible Chinese dialect to spar with her tormentor and in the next use perfect English to explain to her fellow pilots what she said. In this, Fu was a great comedic relief both in her script and in her delivery. It should be noted that Hazel Ying was actually one of the 38 WASPs who were killed in the service of their country. This show is partly dedicated to them.

Peggy Taylor, played by Becca Tischer, is not supposed to be there. She’s the fish-out-of-water. The daughter of a rich and famous American business mogul, she’s forced to be a WASP by him and resents it. Tischer showed us a woman who has disdain for every part of the military experience, the furnishings, the bathrooms, her fellow pilots, and a military brass who doesn’t appreciate how famous and special she is. But Tischer also created a nice arc for Taylor who found her relationship with the WASPs more important than she imagined.

Madyson Greenwood played Pauline Yates, a saucy barn-storming pilot with a Mae West attitude on life. Her devil-may-care view of the world was refreshing in the staid Army atmosphere. Greenwood had a short stint in the opening as the nurse who attended the older Dotty, but her Pauline was both funny and showed the vast experience WASPs had before they were accepted to the program. Not one to openly make waves in the program, she is none-the-less the older sexy WASP who’s not afraid to step out at times. In this, Greenwood seemed to revel and we could see her as the one who could make a bar full of Army boys wet their pants over her.

Jackie Cochran was the historical legendary civilian pilot who ramrodded the WASP program through Congress and the Army. Laura Lester played this ballsy, no-nonsense executive-type, who could easily be Army brass herself, but who has no real power over the military, except to sometimes shame them into action. Lester was crisp, direct in her expectations to her Fly Babies, and concerned for their safety, and for good reason. It appears someone considers sabotage as a way to play pranks on the base. Lester showed her soft motherly love of the pilots as well as a stern discipline for them when they strayed, especially when Dotty challenges Cochran about her support of the racist policies in the Army.

There were a few men in this story. Col. Thomas Evans was played by Nelson Wilson as the Avenger Field commander, walking a fine line between keeping both the WASP pilots and a squad of unruly Army men on the base safe and happy. Those two objectives do not always mix and Wilson showed this through ambivalence between the “pranks” his men were waging against the women and his heavy handling of the case when he found out who was behind it all.

Capt. John Whitaker is the flight instructor assigned to teach the women how to fly military aircraft. Salvador McCaffrey created this character as a strong military type and looked for all the world like McCaffrey could have been a marine drill instructor. He had the look, the stance, the sound and the attitude. Whitaker hates the idea that women would be allowed to fly, but he learns to view them differently in time and McCaffrey showed this change through characteristic understated military fashion, a quick statement and a sudden change in actions against the women. But it’s too late for some, including him.

Sgt. Lewis is the man closest to the WASPs. A young man, played by Jake Blakeman, “Louie” has no interest in flying, but loves the women, especially Dotty, and loves to get things for them that aren’t supposed to be gotten. Blakeman has the look of a young Dick van Dyke, long and lanky, with a quick eye and a wry smile when Louie is flirting with the ladies, which is often. But Sgt. Lewis also has a heart, is totally on the side of the WASPs, and is willing to take risks for them, especially when he helps Dotty execute her plan to right the wrongs against Mazy. In time, they are all hurt by this, but in the end, there are relationships which last a lifetime.

Rusty Harding took the overall history of the WASPs, including historical names and events, and massaged them into a nice fictional story that both tells the history of the WASPs and their half-century to get their just due as heroes of World War II and also a story about a young, daring pilot in the early days of aviation and the life-long memories this created as a member of the Fly Babies.

This is a fun show. It’s a fantastic homage to these ladies who risked, and sometimes gave, their lives in service to our country. If you’re ever out I-20 just west of Abilene, stop by the WASP Museum in Sweetwater, Texas to experience and learn much more about this story. But get over to Richardson in the next two weekends to see this show first. It will lift your spirits.

FLY BABIES
Lunatic Theatre Company
Richardson Theatre Centre
518 W. Arapaho Road Suite 113
Richardson, TX 75080

Plays through July 2nd

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm.

Tickets for Fridays/Saturdays are $22 – Sundays are $20.

For information and tickets, go to www.lunatictheatre.com or call 972.699.1130.
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