Swingin’ big band music from the 1940s sets the mood as we peruse a theater space filled with props and costumes. This space was quiet, as most of the men who performed here were overseas. It’s 1942 in Providence, Rhode Island, and the war rages in Europe, the Pacific, and North Africa.
For history buffs and those who grew up in the post-World War II era, the music, costumes, props, and scenes are perhaps more memory-jogging and sentimental; however, the themes and struggles presented are universal. While likely hidden from most social discourse in the 1940s, these themes are brought to the forefront in this venue of heroism, patriotism, and collaboration back home. In this regard, the entire cast, and particularly Oberon theater stage manager Stuart Lasker (Kevin Loreque) and costume designer Ida Green (Shannon Harris), successfully tugged at our hearts.
You may recall your elder family members playing their 78 records to hear Bennie Goodman, Harry James, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, the Dorseys, and more. Lonely girlfriends, wives, and mothers cherished stacks of letters lovingly wrapped in ribbons written to them by their men battling the Axis powers overseas. Perhaps your parents Lindy Hopped around the living room singing along with Sinatra. I recall my mother working as a book editor in Manhattan during that time and relaying how she and her Bobby Sox girlfriends commiserated and cried while also delighting in attending concerts performed by Frank Sinatra (their top choice at the time). She also enjoyed seeing Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald performing together.
The Providence Oberon Theater is quiet and gloomy. Still, Maggie Dalton (Amy Hutchins), encouraged by her actor husband, who is absent and fighting overseas, believes she can assemble a cast of women to perform Shakespeare, taking the roles of men and delving into the breeches as needed. Although women took on many vocations formerly held by men, like working in factories, resistance towards women dressing as men to play Shakespearean drama was likely expected. Convincing the man in charge, a spirited Ellsworth Show (V. Craig. Heidenreich), that such a production could work wasn’t easy; however, armed with a clever wit and sensibility, Maggie finds a way to bring Snow’s wife Winifred (Jan Neuberger) into the show cast. This effectively garnered Ellsworth’s less-than-enthusiastic support.
The troupe employs opportunities for humor. Celeste Fielding (Carol Halstead) is our prima donna who continually delights as she gleefully capitalizes on her star power and commensurate vanity. Celeste devises props to help teach women to walk like men, and the clever Maggie invents hilarious ways for Winifred to evoke the mannerisms of Groucho Marx effectively.
The tensions of life for women left alone at home are sensitively presented. It’s noted that a military man’s pay is insufficient to support a wife, let alone a wife and children at home. Subsequently and unapologetically, women donned pants and took jobs formerly held by men. A blue star was displayed in a front window for each family with members in the military overseas. If that person died, the blue star was replaced with a gold star in a home now inhabited by a gold star wife or mother.
Ingenue June Bennett (Emma Badger) and raw talent Grace Richards (Jackie Schram), who powerfully characterizes Henry the IV and V, round out the cast for a Shakespearean delight with some unforgettable surprises.
Marvelous light and sound by Joel Zishuk and wardrobe by Olivia Sands immerse us in the era, and the musical selections used during scene changes enhance the settings. The only digression from the big band, swing-style music, was the opening of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), stylishly used to introduce the troupe’s ultimate Shakespearean extravaganza.
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Amapola 1941 Helen O’Connell and Bob Eberly with The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra