Review: WRENS at The Kranzberg Arts Center

A gorgeous, gently feminist tale of women in World War II.

By: Sep. 25, 2023
Review: WRENS at The Kranzberg Arts Center

The Prism Theatre Company, a bright new face in the St. Louis theater scene, has found a gem of a play.  It’s WRENS, by Anne V. McGravie, and it’s playing now at the Kranzberg.

“WRNS”—the Women’s Royal Navy Service.  The time is May 6, 1945—the eve of Germany’s surrender.  The place: a Royal Navy Air Arm station in the Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland. 

We hear Vera Lynn singing her iconic and heart-breaking “I’ll Be Seeing You”.

The lights come up.   

We see a women’s barracks—a “Nissen hut” (what we would call a Quonset hut)—with seven identical beds—each with its Navy-issue blanket tucked in with Royal Navy precision. 

This is the home of seven young women from diverse regions of the United Kingdom.  They have different backgrounds, different personalities, and different lengths of service, but each has responded to the Navy’s call, “Join the WRENS and Free a Man for the Fleet!” 

The playwright, Anne V. McGravie, was herself a WREN, and this story is based on her experience—and some real people—and herself.

It is a gorgeous script, portraying as it does the lives, the stresses, the comradery, the fun, the despair of women in a time of war—in a particular moment of history.

I was reminded of that terrific play, The Wolves, that the Rep did four years ago.  The Wolves told of a high-school girls’ soccer team, while WRENS tells of women some years older and of an era seventy-some years ago.  But both of these plays give intimate insights into what it is like to be female in a particular time and place.  And they do so with a wonderful absence of political statement.  They do so with such lovely restraint.  As a man I felt honored to be allowed these glimpses into what it is to be a woman.

The cast does splendid work.  Ashley Bauman brings an animated bright spirt to Gwyneth, who is in some ways the leader of the group.  Her husband is off there in the war and, who knows, he might be tempted to stray.  But it’s wartime, so . . . she’s philosophical.   With Gwyneth’s light guidance the group reflects on what their lives will be like after the war—when they must give up this time of freedom and agency to return to their everyday British lives.

Jenny is warmly and engagingly played by Avery Lux.  She’s a cheerful and comfortably devout Christian. 

Sara Naumann plays Doris with lovely grim steadiness;  the war introduced her to her husband and then killed him;  she knows precisely how to make tea.  Doris is a writer, and perhaps in her we see playwright McGravie herself. 

Sadie Harvey does lovely work as Cynthia, a daughter of wealth and class;  we sense that Cynthia simply wants to get back to her privileged life.

Dawn works as an airplane mechanic.  It is she who brings the dramatic crisis to the story.  Dawn finds herself pregnant from a rape.  Sam Hayes, with great dramatic eyes,  fills the role with angst.

Chelsea is something of a loner.  Rather glamorous, and friends with no one, she moods about and smokes.  Camryn Ruhl makes the most of this nearly silent role.

Young Meg has only just joined the WRENS.  She’s spending happy nights out with the boys, and she almost regrets the coming peace, as she will have missed out on “the fun”.  Jade Cash plays Meg and gives her bright sparkle and wit.  But Meg’s an orphan, raised in a convent—and she’s built herself a loving-mother myth.  When the topic of abortion is raised she displays an utterly convincing profound innocence—she refuses to believe that such a thing exists.

We watch the soul-searching, the conflict of values, the fear, the empathy when the group has to decide whether to reveal—or to conceal—Dawn’s trouble.

To bid us farewell the show once again brings us Vera Lynn—this time singing (with gentle irony) “I’ll Be Seeing You”.

Director Trish Brown has a history with this play.  In her studies for an MFA she met the play and the playwright, with whom she became fast friends.  WRENS was Ms. Brown’s thesis production.  She directs it deftly here.

Anne McGravie joined the WRENS when she was seventeen.  She wrote WRENS in her eighties.  She died last year at 96—alas, too soon to see this lovely production. 

The Prism Theatre Company presents WRENS at the Kranzberg through September 24.
I highly recommend it.

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