Into The Breeches!
At the Northlight Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Skokie – “Into the Breeches!” at the Northlight Theatre is a small, charming play that flexes some thoughtful social messages beneath its nostalgic veneer. Add eight delightful performances and you have a very agreeable two-hour entertainment.
“Into the Breeches!” originated in Providence, Rhode Island, but Northlight has transferred the setting to Evanston, with happy results. The time is the fall of 1942, when the United States is nearing the completion of its first year in World War II. The men are mostly overseas fighting the war, leaving their wives and sweethearts to do the heavy lifting on the home front. The immediate cause of concern in George Brant’s play is carrying on the traditions of the community Oberon Theater. It looks like the theater may suspend operations for the duration of the war, but Maggie Dalton wants to carry on the work of her husband, the theater director now stationed in Europe.
Maggie urges that the theater remain active by staging its previously scheduled production, which happens to be a revival of William Shakespeare’s three Henry history plays—“Henry IV” parts 1 and 2 and “Henry V.” The men aren’t available so Maggie decides to cast the roles with women. Back in 1942, women playing men on the stage was unheard of at the Oberon Theatre, even though, as Maggie states, men played women’s roles in Shakespeare’s time. Ellsworth Snow, the leading patron of the company, dismisses the idea as offensive nonsense that will bring ridicule to the theater company.
Maggie’s project exposes the sexist conservatism of the community, when a woman’s place was in the home and not on a stage reciting Shakespearean dialogue beyond their comprehension. In addition, Ida Green, the company seamstress, is black and the idea of a black person appearing in an otherwise all-white production is unthinkable. What may be worse, stage manager Stuart Lasker is gay, automatically disqualifying him for acting on any decent stage.
From the perspective of 2019, the assorted prejudices Maggie and her company face are almost comical, but the racism and sexism and homophobia displayed by Snow (who represents the white community) was so fully accepted that it wouldn’t even be considered prejudice. These things just weren’t done in mainstream (meaning white) society and the opponents of the Shakespeare production would surely resent even being called bigots or intolerant. They were simply upholding community standards.
Along with the social conflicts, the play deftly explores the importance of theater in our culture and how Shakespeare, dismissed as difficult and arty, really can speak to the present generation if only it were approached with an open mind. The women in Maggie’s company, plus the state manager, grow in confidence before the audience’s eyes as they delve into the “Henry” plays, finding relevance to their own lives. Brant also tastefully but seriously injects the fears of the women with men fighting the war, trying to carry on when letters from husbands and boy friends fail to arrive week after week as wives and sweethearts try to control their worst fears.
But the main substance of “Into the Breeches” resides in the collection of distinctive characters who find themselves bonding together to assert their right to perform as equals to men. As consciousnesses were being raised all round the stage, the audience both laughed at and cheered the ladies (and man) as they challenge one social taboo after another.
The Northlight cast is led by Darci Nalepa’s Maggie. Her character is the star because it’s Maggie’s pluck and resilience that drive the company. Nalepa delivers a spot-on performance as a woman who rises to an occasion fraught with the risk of disgrace and humiliation (what if their show bombs?).
The remainder of the ensemble plays distinctive character types, all credible even if some are two dimensional. Hollis Resnik, who has been absent from local stages too long, nails the role of the aging prima donna inwardly fearful that time is passing her by. Molly Hernandez and Annie Munch play their neophyte actresses with gentle humor, Munch’s character trying to keep a stiff upper lip after her pilot husband is reported missing in an air raid. I could see Hernandez as Juliet and Munch as Rosalind in real Shakespeare productions. Michael J. Fain plays the gay stage manager with just the right understatement that masks a stressful life in the closet.
Fred Zimmerman’s Elsworth Snow is the patron who starts out appalled at all the unfeminine machinations erupting in the theater he has supported so loyally. Penny Slusher is his comical wife who blossoms after she undertakes the role of Falstaff. Penelope Walker is the sole black in the company, maintaining her dignity in the face of what must have been daily humiliations.
Jessica Thebus directs the show with insight and sympathy, melding the humorous and sentimental moments with more serious points of interest. The admirable design credits go to Arnel Sancianco (scenic design), Samantha C. Jones (costume design, establishing an authentic early 1940’s look), JR Lederle (lighting design), and Kevin O’Donnell (sound design). Ms. Jones also includes cloth cod pieces in her costumes. The women’s realization of what they are wrapping around their waists provides the evening’s most priceless comic moment.
The success of “In the Breeches!” relies on the acting and directing not pushing the social commentary or comedy too hard. The Northlight production is a perfect pitch show that arouses curiosity about other comedies George Brant may have written. The drollest touch in this show is the title, which all audience members who know their “Henry V” should recognize.
The show gets a rating of
“Into the Breeches” runs through June 16 at the Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Boulevard. Most performances are Wednesday at 1 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $88. Call 847 673 6300 or visit northlight.org.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. May 2019
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