Flying, by Sheila Cowley, is a five-person tour de force of superb acting. A runner-up for the University of South Carolina’s Todd McNerney Playwriting Award, a nationally held contest, the play had its world premiere Friday night (May 26) at the Chenango River Theatre in Greene.
The play is set in West Texas at the end of World War II. In two pin-dropping acts, it tells the story of a flying ace and hero, the unseen Bob, who has not come home yet from the war, and the small community that waits anxiously for his return from Berlin.
Three young women work to keep the lights on in the dusty space of the office and hangar of River Air, Bob’s small aviation business. They struggle to hold down the fort, even as they fight the entrenched biases in their traditionally male environment.
Susan, Laura and Lucy, however, have the expertise and guts to keep the place going. They’re all veterans, too, members of the WASPS (Women Airforce Service Pilots) and were among the first American women to be trained to fly, and service, warplanes. Susan, Bob’s devoted wife, runs the office while pilot Laura, and mechanic Lucy never fail to keep the subdued Susan’s spirits up.
Katie Zaffrann gives a delicate, heart-rending performance as Susan, who never lets you see her internal struggles. She is quiet and determined to focus on her work. Her character exists in stark contrast to the outspoken Lucy, wonderfully played by Annie Winneg, who never loses a beat, or a lug nut, as River Air’s fearless grease monkey, and the incomparable Heidi Weeks as the gregarious Laura.
When Lucy and Susan are pulled into Laura’s conventions-be-damned attitude, it’s a touching expression of their friendship and courage. In an impromptu swing dance number, accompanied by the office radio, the trio is wonderful to watch.
Enter Sergeant Fisher, Bob’s friend and former gunner. Recovering from serious war wounds, Fisher is looking for the job Bob promised him when fighting in Europe. The women take him on, enjoying a little teasing of the clueless veteran, even as they never let him forget who’s boss.
Zachary Chastain maintains the believable limp and contracted hand of Fisher’s external injuries but never lets them take over what is a poignant, moving performance of Fisher’s internal, emotional damages.
Not a whole lot happens in the few weeks that Susan; her dad, the town doctor, tenderly played by veteran actor Jim Wicker, and her friends await Bob’s return, but we still get a very clear picture of him from Cowley’s sharp dialogue, rich character development and specific sense of time and place.
The script calls for the measured use of music of the era, well-timed plane engine noises and even birdsong to effectively denote early morning. The passage of time is helped by Julie Duro’s lighting design, and Barbara N. Kahl’s costume design — everything from high-waisted, pleated trousers and leather bomber jackets to spectator shoes and mechanics’ overalls — is used to great effect.
Even if you find some of the plot points thin or the premise weak, which I didn’t, you can still appreciate what the characters represent and the believability of the story’s elements.
Flying is a small gem, directed by Drew Kahl, a frequent contributor to the success of the CRT. Together with set designer Bill Lelbach (CRT’s artistic director) and stage manager Heather Burton, Kahl and this ensemble cast and crew have a play that transports the audience to a gritty, compelling place.
Playwright Cowley based the characters on the writings of real women who served as WASPS. Her drama is authentic and thought-provoking and perfect for opening on Memorial Day weekend.
IF YOU GO: Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through June 18 at the Chenango River Theatre, 991 State Highway 12, Greene. For tickets, call the box office at 607-656-8499, or go online to www.chenangorivertheatre.org. A post-show talk-back with the actors and the director will be held after the performance this coming Friday (June 2).