Theater

Heroines of World War II

Renaissance Theaterworks tells the stirring story of WASP pilots, by a local playwright.

By - Mar 29th, 2016 05:54 pm
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Censored on Final Approach. Photo by Ross E. Zentner.

Censored on Final Approach. Photo by Ross E. Zentner.

Phylis Ravel was an actress, artistic director and playwright who took over Marquette University‘s theater arts program in 1997 and ran it until her death in 2012. Her impact was considerable.

Ravel was a member of both Actor’s Equity and the Screen Actors Guild and used her professional connections to help students get jobs or get admitted to prestigious graduate programs. “She was an amazing woman” who helped many students, as Stephen Hudson-Mairet, chairman of MU’s Digital Media and Performing Arts Department, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “There are students of ours across the country in meaningful positions both on-screen and off-screen, both onstage and offstage.”

Under Ravel, the university theater program produced at least one play with a social justice theme every year. As an obituary published by MU’s Diederich College of Communication noted, “Her vision was a driving force for the social justice programming in the department, and instrumental in bringing shows such as ‘Dead Man Walking,’ ‘The Trial of the Catonsville 9’ and ‘Censored on Final Approach’ to the Marquette community.”

The last on the list was a play written (in 1993) by Ravel herself, telling the story of female pilots who served during World War II as WASPs, or Women Air Service Pilots. These women flew a combined total of over 60 million miles in every type of military aircraft and paved the way for future generations of female pilots, but they suffered rampant discrimination by male superiors and fellow pilots. They were under constant pressure to prove themselves and many volunteered to fly aircraft deemed too risky by the male pilots; 38 WASPs died serving their country. Their struggles for acceptance drives the plot, which also turns around the mystery of a fellow pilot who was killed while trying to land her aircraft.

Gary Garrison, Executive Director of the Dramatists Guild of America, has called the play “A beautifully rendered, character-driven drama… With an assortment of well-crafted, complex roles for women.”

The play has had some performances, mostly in university settings, and seems a natural for Milwaukee’s Renaissance Theaterworks, which specializes in plays written or performed by women. The company’s artistic directed Suzan Fete has wanted to do the play for years, she told the Journal Sentinel, but the large cast made it too expensive to produce.  The solution was a co-production with MU’s theater department.

The play is directed by Leda Hoffmann, an up-and-coming star who has directed for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Door Shakespeare, Alchemist Theater and others. Milwaukee Magazine critic Paul Kosidowski has saluted her work, calling 2013 “a great year for young directors, most notably Leda Hoffmann, who made her mark with two powerful classically-based productions: a pared-down King Lear at Alchemist Theatre, and an outdoor staging of Margaret Atwood’s feminist retelling of The Odyssey, The Penelopiad.”

Ravel, who championed so many younger artists, would surely have loved the idea of Hoffmann directed her play.

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