BWW Review: World Premiere of Fast, Funny, Smart STEWARDESS! at History Theatre
Briskly written and dynamically staged, this world premiere tells a complicated, true, little known story with wit and economy. From the early days of commercial airlines, stewardesses were hired based on looks, required to pass weekly weight checks, forbidden to wear glasses or marry, and fired automatically when they reached age 32. They were also not allowed to apply for the higher paying bursar jobs. Though it took decades, literally, a stewardess named Mary Pat Laffey got all that to change, persisting with a lawsuit under Equal Employment statutes that derive directly from the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
STEWARDESS! tells that tale, carefully weaving in stories of leading African American women activists and Gloria Steinem's evolution as a feminist voice; this script is a genuine attempt to observe intersectionality without sacrificing a sense of humor. It's fitting that this production premieres in Saint Paul, which was, at the time the story begins, headquarters for Northwest Airlines, which morphed into Northwest Orient Airlines, and eventually merged with Delta. Many of the early battles for gender equality in the airline industry happened here.
Nationally known playwright Kira Obolensky is based in the Twin Cities, and often writes on commission for local theaters. She's done considerable research in developing this script, some archival, and a lot that's more personal, including interviews with Mary Pat Laffey herself, who was in attendance and celebrated on opening night.
Since the action happens in multiple locations from 1958 to 1985, with a final scene set in the present as we are advised to 'expect turbulence ahead' and buckle in to our seats, it's crucial that the scenic design be flexible and suggestive. It is, thanks to Scenic Designer Joseph Stanley and Scenic Artist Dee Skogen. They've devised a sleek, curvilinear, mod-60s era set that provides several playing areas on different levels and employs a turntable. It's backed with a big projection screen which, I was happy to see, did not ever resort to grainy black and white historic footage, but instead provided backlight so certain dance-like moments could be seen in silhouette. With the addition of a strip of small lights along the bottom edge, it also suggested runways and the wide open skies. The carefully controlled palette of grey, white, red, and black stylishly set off the conventional navy blue airline uniforms. Lighting design is by Mike Wangen and costumes are by Amber Brown.
On this playing space, director Nöel Raymond and movement director Heidi Batz Rogers punctuate the action with clever bits of choreography, often involving suitcases. Precisely because the story being told is an historically accurate one, the choice to bounce away from realism and into heightened theatricality, using music, movement, and tableau, is smart. There's a lot of wry humor that elicited knowing laughter from the audience throughout the show.
An ensemble of six actors (four women, two men) carry all the roles. Watching them morph physically and vocally, with just the barest help from minimal costume changes, is one of the pleasures of this performance. They sing, too, providing snatches of period pop music and jingles.
Tracey Maloney, as Mary Pat, provides the clearest through line; but we also see character arcs from others, including Kimberly Rose Richardson as Gloria Steinem (among others), and the terrrific Jamila Anderson as Dorothy Pitman Hughes (among others), the accomplished African-American activist who was a mentor to Steinem, toured with her throughout the 70s, and co-founded Ms. Magazine. Elise Langer is a gifted comic. She also plays multiple roles, with an audience favorite being a middle-aged secretary who can't believe what her bosses say out loud as she is increasingly overcome by hot flashes. The men in the company (John Catron and Adam Whisner) play multiple parts, and while it falls to them to behave badly frequently, they also are allowed some redeeming moments by this script.
Though STEWARDESS! is fast and funny, the tale of systemic gender inequality in our society it lays out is ongoing and serious. There are moments here that are wincingly hard to watch, in the same way I found the early seasons of "Mad Men" on TV to be. If you are of a certain age, you may feel the same. If you are younger, it's really vital to see the specifics of outright bias at work. It's a bracing reminder of how high the stakes are as the intersectional fight for equality proceeds in the present.
STEWARDESS plays through March 3 in Saint Paul. It's well worth a visit.
Photo credit: Scott Pakudaitis