The assortment of glorious, vintage chandeliers hanging from the ceiling of the Sarah and Joseph Dowling Jr. Theater are perfect symbols for the big, smart, shining, nostalgic — yet ever so timely — play now on stage at Trinity Rep.
“Into the Breeches!,” written for Trinity’s resident acting company by playwright George Brant, is heartwarming and hilarious – yet political, tough and thought-provoking. It’s set in Rhode Island in 1942 at the fictional Oberon Theater in Providence. WWII is in its early days and most of the men are off fighting overseas.
The play tells the story of a troupe of female actors who decide to continue with a planned production of Shakespeare’s Henry plays, even though the company’s men (including their director) are fighting in the war. Leading the charge is the director’s stalwart wife, Maggie Dalton (Ann Scurria is magnificent), who comes to the decision to direct the show herself slowly, seriously and not without angst and personal awakenings. As forward thinking and progressive as Maggie may be — and as willing to take on the theater’s stodgy businessman benefactor Ellsworth Snow (Timothy Crowe is perfectly cast and his wild get-ups will have you howling!) — she struggles with the notion of including a gay man and a woman of color in the production. In the end, much to our relief, she comes around, and this band of brothers — sisters, rather, is triumphant. What a cast of characters.
There’s Snow’s wife Winifred (Janice Duclos brings down the house with her Groucho Marx-inspired Falstaff); drama queen Celeste Fielding (Phyllis Kay is, as always, marvelous, and delivers some of the best lines as she marches off to Woonsocket); Grace Richards (Rachael Warren is lovely as the lonely single mom); ingenue June Bennett (Trinity newcomer/Brown student Meghan Leathers, with her gollies and swells is aces); and Ida Green, the seamstress, and the production’s only person of color (Lynnette R. Freeman is a quiet force).
And just you wait till you see Stephen Berenson (who broke our hearts as Willie Loman last season in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”) as Stuart Lasker, Oberon’s stage manager, who joins the all-female cast by donning a wig and a snug-fitting dress.
Directed by Trinity Rep Associate Artistic Director Tyler Dobrowsky, “Into the Breeches!” is a triumphant play and one that should not be missed. As the program notes say, “It’s full of laughter, warmth, and thoughtfulness while looking at matters of pride, patriotism, and the incredible power of the arts to sustain us even in the most difficult times.” What a hoot to hear the various cities and towns — from Westerly to Woonsocket and Narragansett to Cranston — mentioned throughout the play.
I couldn’t help but think about the summer our own Colonial Theatre produced “Henry V” — the third part of Shakespeare’s Henry plays — which tells the story of King Henry’s miraculous victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
The Colonial’s artistic director, Harland Meltzer, told me then that the story of the English king’s bloody conquest of France during the Hundred Year’s War was about much more than war.
“It really speaks to every aspect of the human condition,” Meltzer told me at the time. “Everyone who comes to see this play will see pieces of themselves in it and pieces of people they know.”
Well done, George Brant. You’ve learned from the master.
“Henry V,” of course, also includes the famous St. Crispin’s Day Speech: “From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered, We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.”
Right on sisters, right on.
“Into the Breeches” runs through Feb. 25 at Trinity Rep, 201 Washington St., Providence. Tickets start at $25. Call 401- 351-4242, or visit trinityrep.com.