BWW Reviews: Didactic, Dismal ANGELS WITHOUT WINGS Premieres at Darkhorse Theater

BWW Reviews: Didactic, Dismal ANGELS WITHOUT WINGS Premieres at Darkhorse Theater

Somewhere amid all the platitudes and cliches, the self-indulgence and historical inaccuracies, there is actually a compelling story buried deep in Angels Without Wings, the new play that debuted at Darkhorse Theater last night. But playwright/director Jamie Cutler is far too personally involved to realize that she's strayed far from the real story.

Despite the best efforts of some of Nashville's finest and most promising young actresses, who do their best with such a disappointing script, they can't bring the show to life. The play's characters-who represent some of the 1,800-plus real women who entered training in 1943 to become Womens Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) a paramilitary organization designed to allow women to provide support for the male pilots of the Army Air Forces-represent a cross-section of American women who wanted to aid the war effort in the best possible way. Based on the experiences of Cutler's mother, herself a WASP whose face can be seen on the CongressionAl Gold Medal that was presented to surviving WASPs in 2009, Angels Without Wings tries too hard to be all things to all people.

Cutler's focus tends to wander: Is Angels Without Wing a proto-feminist tale of the modern American woman claiming her rightful place in "a man's world" or is it a nostalgic wartime love story about a wounded flying ace falling for one of the women in his charge? Although it tries to be both, it succeeds as neither.

Clearly, Cutler's script wants to be both an enlightening evocation of history and a personal tale filled with wartime emotions and passions, but the playwright fails in her mission. There are interesting facts delivered in the play, but some of the things presented as fact actually never happened.

For example, actress Courtney McClellan plays California-native Lydia, an African-American woman whose husband is missing-in-action. She quickly bonds with her other WASP trainees, even as some of them discuss the fact they've never met a "colored" woman or a Jew (Britt Byrd's Lois is an ambitious Jewess hoping to get into medical school-and represents Cutler's mother). The fact is, African-American women were not allowed to join the WASP training program.

In another egregious error, a character mentions the G.I. Bill-the bill passed by Congress that became law in June, 1944, and gave returning G.I.'s the opportunity to further their education in the aftermath of World War II. If we are to believe that the action in the play takes place in 1943 and that Lydia is only two months pregnant (and not showing the outward physical signs of her impending motherhood), then in the time period post-June 1944 wouldn't she have been showing? Sure seems like it.

Errors such as this undermine the message and the story told by Angels Without Wings-that and the fact that Cutler is unable to write dialogue in the voices of different characters. Every woman, regardless of her prior station in life, seems well-educated, articulate and somewhat erudite despite what she tells us as the play's action unfolds. There are the requisite country girls and hayseeds, small-town beauties and big-city dames among the WASP ranks. Yet each and every woman sounds talk like the members of a women's magazine editorial staff.

Perhaps it is Cutler's zeal to pay tribute to her mother's role in American history (and all those other women who went through WASP training only to have their records sealed, their contributions hidden, for some 35 years-in fact, it wasn't until 1977 that President Jimmy Carter signed a bill that gave the surviving WASPs recognition as veterans of World War II), that is at the root of the play's shortcomings. Had she entrusted her script to a theater director of some experience, the results likely could have been different.

The story is didactic and heavy-handed at worst, melodramatic at best: When one of the women goes up in the air to fly a plane for a Life magazine photographer, it's obvious what will follow. And when the expected dramatic pay-off does indeed happen, it takes place in a scene of less than one minute which loses any sense of compelling drama.

Cutler's veteran cast of some of Nashville's best young actors, led by the estimable talents of Britt Byrd, Halee-Catherine Culicerto, Elizabeth Walsh, Kyla Lowder and Courtney McClellan, deliver fine performances, making the most of the poorly developed script. But they cannot create transformative theater without the necessary foundation provided by a carefully plotted play and are, therefore, lost in the clouds. They are joined in the production by Briana Ferre, Kevin Shell and Sean Hills (who are new faces to me, at least), who fare no better-their characters are underdeveloped and saddled with dialogue that sounds like it was cut from a 1945 potboiler about WWII exploits.

The production's most winning aspect is the wartime musical score that helps to set the tone for the production, featuring some of the best-loved songs of the 1940s performed by some of the era's most iconic artists.

Original theater is always an exciting undertaking, but it is filled with risks, and Angels Without Wings would have benefitted from further retooling (it was presented as a staged reading at the Z. Alexander Looby Theatre last year) before being presented in a production for paying theater-goers. The history of the women portrayed is an intriguing and vital part of our American story and these heroines deserve far better.

  • Angels Without Wings. Written and directed by Jamie Cutler. Presented at Darkhorse Theater, 4610 Charlotte Avenue, Nashville. Through August 5. 

 

 

 

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


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