New ‘Oak Island’ musical a treasure

By John Lyle Belden

At last, “Oak Island: A New Musical” by Marian University alums Joe Barsanti (music) and Brandi Underwood (book and director) has its world premiere on the Basile stage at the Indyfringe Theatre. The show’s music was introduced in concert during the 2021 IndyFringe Festival, and this is its first full staging, produced by American Lives Theatre.

Oak Island is an actual place, located near Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. It has been the subject of stories and legends since at least the 1700s, as well as a recent nine-episode reality TV series. Like many islands from the Maritimes to the Caribbean, it is rumored to be the location of buried treasure (a top candidate for whose is pirate Capt. Kidd; more fanciful legends cite the Knights Templar, among others). For generations, repeated expeditions found old coins and mysterious objects. But time and again, when it seems a definitive answer is within reach, seawater floods in and the shaft collapses. Professional treasure hunters make plans to solve the mystery (and beat the “curse”) to this day.

But this musical is not about the treasure hunt; it focuses on the hunters, and one family in particular.

Frank (John B. Hayes) let this obsession take over his entire life, sharing the search with his son Will (Joseph Massingale) while his wife Grace (Carrie Neal) and other son Drake (Zach Hoover) stayed behind in the States. But now the father has died, leaving his sons to consider their legacy.

Andrew Horras and Tommy McConnell play Will and Drake, respectively, as young boys in flashback and memory, competing with the lure of distant gold for their father’s affection. In one of the best scenes, “Nothing You and I Can’t Do,” we see the adult brothers remember an impromptu backyard treasure hunt their father prepared for them, as their younger selves race about following the clues. Each came away with a different perspective on and lessons from the event, reflected in the bitter friction between them now.

Wendy noted that another song, “Miles Between Us,” sounds like something you’d hear on the radio.

Other roles are played by Maggie Lengerich, Jack Lockrem, Kerrington Shorter, and Dan Flahive, who portrays friendly Oak Islander Paul as well as rival treasure hunter Eugene, who offers to buy Frank’s claim from the sons.

The musical shows a lot of promise, with the creators always open to feedback. It manages to dwell on loss without becoming too maudlin, and creates an interesting conflict not only with two sons having very different experiences with their father – the more estranged struggling with the lost opportunity to reconcile – but also with the siren song of obsession. Is there an obligation to make their father’s sacrifices worthwhile? Does the next generation carry on the search, knowing what it could cost?

Massingale and Hoover, who sang their roles in the Fringe concert, comfortably embody the siblings, even with their roiling mix of emotions that include equal parts love and resentment. Hayes gives us a no-nonsense father (ironic when considering the eccentricity of his mission) while Neal’s Grace lives up to the name, understanding and accommodating to a fault. All four personalities are quick to point out selfishness in the others, while blind to their own.

We have an excellent opportunity with this show to be able to say you saw it before it potentially goes on to bigger stages. Performances run through Sunday at 719 E. St. Clair, off Mass Ave. in downtown Indianapolis. For information and tickets, visit americanlivestheatre.org or indyfringe.org.

‘Fade’ reflects insider view of ethnic struggle in showbiz

By John Lyle Belden

The play “Fade,” presented by Fonseca Theatre Company, is not a true story, but contains an immense amount of truth.

It is based on the experiences of playwright Tanya Saracho, who, like her character Lucia, is a Mexican-born writer who worked in Chicago and got an opportunity to write for television in Los Angeles. Saracho went from being a “diversity hire” in the room that wrote cable series “Devious Maids” all the way to Shondaland, a writer and co-producer on “How to Get Away with Murder.”

We meet Lucia (Lara Romero) at the beginning of that journey, where the all-white-male writing team call her “Loosha” (not “lew-see-ah”) and think of her as little more than the coffee-fetcher and a translator for show-runner John to talk to his maid. We don’t see the co-workers but know them through Lucia’s conversations with janitor Abel (Ian Cruz; by the way, the Latinx character is pronounced “Ah-beel”).

People are people, so rather than have an instant “you and me against the world” bond, Lucia and Abel initially clash, each making class and ethnic assumptions about the other. She grew up with wealth, which he immediately senses, but she doesn’t consider herself “rich,” especially now in starving-writer mode. And Abel has a far more complex backstory than she could have suspected. In fact, Lucia realizes, it’s the kind of story that would look great on TV.

The play is a sly commentary on class, stereotype, tone-deaf Hollywood, and its ambitious culture. Lucia wants to change this place, but how much will it change her?

Romero ably portrays the likable go-getter feeling out of her element from the get-go. She comes across as smart yet needing to absorb some hard lessons. Cruz channels his paternal side (he’s the Dad of his “zoo” offstage) to bring an earnest gravatas to a surprisingly complex character. He knows what life can do to a person, now he’s witnessing the dark side of showbiz.

Assistant stage manager Chris Creech appears briefly, and as a Maintenance worker executes smooth scene changes.

Note the play is in “Spanglish,” reflecting natural conversations between two bilinguals in a mixed culture. However, Spanish phrases are translated or understandable in context. Direction is by Fonseca Producing Director Jordan Flores Schwartz.

Performances of “Fade” run through June 12 at the FTC Basile stage, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

IRT stages solid ‘Steel Magnolias’

By John Lyle Belden

When the Indiana Repertory Theatre takes on familiar material, there is always an effort to make it fresh. This is especially important when the play has also been a beloved film.

For “Steel Magnolias,” the essence of the story has not changed, but the IRT has brought in the sets and cast from their co-production at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. With unfamiliar faces, it is easier to see them as their characters, and for their part they have had a lot of practice inhabiting them.

If you are unfamiliar with this story, this is an excellent opportunity to discover what millions have enjoyed since it premiered on stage in 1987, and on film in 1989. Robert Harling wrote the play based on events in his own family. “All the characters were based on real people, Mama’s friends,” he said in a 2017 interview. The scenes all take place in the women’s sanctum of Truvy’s Beauty Shop, the main plot centering on young Shelby and her mother, M’Lynn.

Directed by Laura Gordon (who previously worked with IRT on “Boeing Boeing”), the cast are Susan Lynskey as Truvy, the benevolent queen of this domain; Kate Abbruzzese as Shelby, whose fierce spirit strives to compensate for physical frailty; Annie Fitzpatrick as M’Lynn, a loving Mom dealing with the fact her girl inherited her stubbornness; Gina Daniels as Clairee, as close to high society as one gets in small-town Louisiana; Brittany Anikka Liu as Annelle, a young woman with a bad past hoping to build a better future with her faith; and Naomi Jacobson as feisty cantankerous Ouiser, whose rough edges guard a kind heart.  Their polished performances feel genuine, with a relaxed air like we’re all invited guests, or just fellow customers waiting our turn at the beauty chairs.

This show has what recent lingo would call, “all the feels.” There are scenes of rollicking hilarity, with dozens of quotable lines, as well as wells of wet-eyed emotion – sometimes within moments of each other. It is wondrous, charming, cathartic, and uplifting.

One doesn’t have to be from the South to understand the spirit of the play – that women are delicate flowers made of the sturdiest stuff, because they have to be. See it for yourself through June 5 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indianapolis. For information and tickets, visit irtlive.com.

Traumatic issues taken seriously in new drama

By John Lyle Belden

Over time, I have gotten to know persons who shared their struggles with Dissociative Identity Disorder, which pop culture gave the misleading label of “multiple personalities.” This mental health condition is complex and usually borne of deep personal trauma. 

Therefore, the Trigger Warnings for “Coping with Autumn,” the new drama written and directed by Megan Ann Jacobs for Theatre Unchained, presented by Arts for Lawrence, should be taken seriously.

Autumn (Kyrsten Lyster) is under observation after her arrest for killing her boyfriend. She decides that if you are going to watch, she will give you a show, telling you the story of how she arrived in this unfurnished cell.

During her narration, we meet the occupants of her mind: Dee (Maresa Eileen Kelly), the eternal child who won’t tell her what happened when alone with her father, appears shortly before her mother (Rachel A. Snyder) divorces and moves them from Wisconsin to Indiana. Joy (Ethany Reeder Michaud), the impulsive, takes over when potential new high school friends invite her to a party, then ensures Autumn has a “good time.” When regrets set in, Vera (Roci Contreras), the confrontational, appears to make sure those classmates never bother her again.

Like many misfits, Autumn feels more at home at a distant college. There, she is befriended by Kasey (Brittany Magee). They bond over poetry and spend a lot of time together, until Kasey invites Autumn to a “small” get-together. Naturally, it’s another wild crowd, and then the bag of drugs comes out.

Before her “friends” emerge, Autumn exits, and meets Steven (Thomas Sebald). He seems so nice, and perfect. He pampers her, gives her fancy meals and nice gifts. Then he starts making demands. Is this what love is like? Must be, she thinks, and does everything she can to please him – until she can’t. Kasey has been shut out, and Steven has charmed Mom. Who can help her? I’ll give you three guesses.

The second act features Autumn’s trial and aftermath. New allies include therapist Dr. Weber (Kelly Keller) and pro bono attorney Alex (Joe Wagner), who feels a personal connection to the case. But Sebald returns to the stage as a prosecuting attorney, the resemblance not lost on Autumn. 

Lyster, who has shown so much range in past roles, is amazing here. Magee, who joined the cast late into the production, is incredible in support. Snyder is superb, and by happy accident has a physical resemblance to her “daughter.” Their portrayals of well-meaning but damaged women never slip into cliche and evoke appropriate emotional responses from the audience and each other.

This ain’t “Inside Out.” The two adolescents and child that represent portions of
Autumn’s psyche are neither cartoonish nor comic relief. The dissociation is handled respectfully in smooth transitions with Lyster so that we easily see the four actors as aspects of the same woman. 

Sebald plays Steven so disarmingly kind (when the monster is hidden away), it’s easy to see how men like this character can charm and trap women who find no one believes them when relationships turn abusive. And when he’s a beast, “evil” is an understatement.

Cast and crew took this sensitive topic seriously. During a post-show talk-back, dramaturg Max Andrew McCreary said he shared his mental health research with them, including that according to one source, it is estimated that nearly half of adults have at one time had a sort of dissociative incident, from a moment feeling outside one’s body, all along the spectrum to rare cases of true DID (fictional Autumn’s condition is on the spectrum). All involved took consent into account throughout the entire process, from the first rehearsal. Sebald, who said he had helped workshop Steven/Prosecutor, said this was especially essential for him to feel comfortable in his role. This atmosphere of trust helped make the action in this drama more raw and natural, which some in the audience noted in their comments.

If you have experience with abuse and/or psychological trauma, be careful about seeing this. But for any who can manage, this is highly recommended. Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, May 19-21 (post-show talkbacks on Thursday and Saturday) at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., Lawrence (off the north end of Indy’s Post Road). Get info and tickets at TheatreUnchained.org or ArtsForLawrence.org.

Little-known story of man’s American ‘Dreams’

By John Lyle Belden

While most know how the United States has failed to be a land of opportunity for natives and people of African descent, we might be less familiar with the manner with which Asian immigrants have been treated. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act made coming to America difficult, but in the 20th century, circumstances gave some hope by way of “paper families” – exploiting the loss of official records in events like the Great San Francisco Earthquake to claim relatives in the States.

This process, and the consequences of its necessary deception, are dramatized in “The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin,” by Jessica Huang, on stage (after a two-year delay) at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

It’s been one year since Laura (Anne Bates) departed, but still too early for the traditional month when the Dead come to visit – however, she’s not Chinese, so she haunts her daughter Sheila (Allison Buck) and husband Harry (David Shih) anyway. 

Her arrival takes Harry Chin back to past moments, meeting young Laura as he struggles with his English, yet managing enough to tell her an old story. The supernatural effect then takes him further back, to when he was Leong Cheung Yu, leaving behind his name and past life to become the alleged relative of a Chinese American named Chin, complete with backstory he must memorize to the last word. He coaches a fellow immigrant (Linden Tailor), who grows more nervous every moment. Reciting the papers exactly becomes literally the most important thing in their lives.

Flashing back from the present-day of the 1970s to decades past takes its toll, as his boss (Sam Encarnation) re-appears as his Immigration interrogator. Harry sees the face of the woman he left behind (Stephanie Soohyun Park) in the interpreter assigned at his questioning, and later in a surprise visit from Susan, the girl he had last seen as an infant.

The restless dead have a lot to teach Harry, Sheila (a person “of two worlds,” they note) and, most importantly, us. After all, “Haunting is helping,” as Harry’s old companion says. 

Be sure to read the historical notes in the play program, as they add clarity to what is happening on stage. Huang based this on the actual story of a man who lived in Minnesota after arrival via a “paper family,” so this dramatization contains a lot of discomforting truth, as well as the strength of character of a man trying to do the best he can for himself and his people – both those he left, and the new family he makes here.

Shih excellently gives us the fiercely proud Chin. Buck is both caring and curious, portraying a woman at the crossroads of immense possibility – not only in learning more about her true heritage (in shocking fashion) but also being in the “women’s lib” era with the openings that entails. Bates has Laura loving fiercely as well, to her limit and beyond. Tailor entertains in his supporting roles. Park catches our heart in softly tragic moments. Encarnacion is appropriately frightening as the face of cruel bureaucracy.

Jaki Bradley directs this otherworldly yet accessible story, set in the IRT’s intimate Upperstage, with clever set design by Wilson Chin. 

An important story, as well as a bold and fascinating drama, “The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin” continue through May 15 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at irtlive.com.

District drama explores daunting ‘Place’

By Wendy Carson

By Wendy Carson

The District Theatre presents “What Is This Place? A Journey of Self in the Aftermath,” in which five souls ask the title question, while knowing on some level exactly where they are.

Welcome to their nightmare – where you, too, will likely go one day.

I first saw a version of this show in August of 2016, at IndyFringe. In the six years since, playwright Jan White has reshaped it into an even greater work of beauty and hope. If you go back to that first review, I didn’t say much about the show because I didn’t want to spoil the mystery for anyone. However, the current version allows more room to meditate on the performance.

The story begins with Darlene (Holly Hathaway) being flung in through a door which she cannot unlock to make her escape. She claims to know the place, because in her past she saw her mother inside it. She protests that she wants to leave, but is afraid of what lies beyond the door.

The other denizens of this place are: Maggie (Miki Mathioudakis), a wealthy widow, distantly connected to Darlene, who has transformed into a sloppy, hot mess; Sophia (Brittany Magee), a perky, meditating, goof who searches for peace she cannot find; Cindy (Bianca Black), who just wants to sleep, but no combination of drugs and alcohol are able to work; and finally, Jake (Chad Pirowski), the apparent caretaker, whose silence makes him appear creepy.

Periodically, each person will go to a space at the side of the stage to view pieces of their memories, which we are privy to by way of a video screen. It does not take us long to realize what this place actually is, but the point here is the characters’ journey to that same discovery. Once they fully acknowledge it, they must then decide whether to leave or stay (each option has its benefits).

As each woman comes to terms with that which landed them there, they must also deal with the fact that some questions never have answers, that perhaps “everything happens for a reason” is nonsense, whether you accept it or not. Eventually, they find the darkness they have in common, and how to wield it as a key to that door that perhaps was never really locked after all.

While this is a story about grief and loss, it also embodies the accomplishment and hope that lies at the end of that road.

Performances are truly remarkable, considering the gut-wrenching dramatic exercise this play puts the cast through, under the direction of Rosana Schutte. We get small bits of relief, in humorous moments with Cindy’s substances, Maggie’s endless Doritos bags, or Sophia’s attempts at serenity with bells and “tapping.” Still, the pain is never far from them, lurking just outside the windows. Our heart goes out to all five, even Jake, who has the darkest truth.

Remaining performances of “What Is This Place?” are Friday and Saturday, April 29-30, with ASL interpretation, at the District, 627 Mass. Ave., Indianapolis. For info and tickets, go to IndyDistrictTheatre.org.

ALT: ‘Living’ not easy in award-winning drama

By John Lyle Belden

This is a story about entrapment. It is people trapped by situations, accidents, choices – even their own bodies. What you pay to deal with that is the “Cost of Living,” a play by Martyna Majok presented by American Lives Theatre at the Fonseca Theatre.

Eddie (Clay Mabbitt) seems to be stuck in the Twilight Zone. To deal with loss, the former trucker leaves texts at an old number that has mysteriously texted him back. And now, the trap has snapped on you in the audience. This isn’t the main plot point, and as we get into the next scene, we’re not even sure where what we just saw fits. Hold on, though, it’s worth working our way back out.

John (Preston Dildine) has a mind that’s making him rich, and a body with cerebral palsy that requires him to hire someone to bathe it. In a manner like pelting with stones, he questions Jess (Teneh Karimu) to see if she is of the mettle to do the undignified job. Also, he finds it intriguing that she is Ivy-educated, yet works all night waitressing at bars. 

Ani (Olivia Mozzi) really doesn’t want to deal with Eddie right now. She’s managing well enough since the accident that shattered her spine, and would rather have someone other than her ex taking care of her. But he, babbling attempts at kindness and bouncing like a hyper puppy, really wants to help. 

This Indianapolis premiere of the 2018 Pulitzer-winning drama is directed and stage-managed by ALT founder and Artistic Director Chris Saunders, who made a point of casting people with disabilities in the two chair-bound roles (their actual conditions are different than what is portrayed). Don’t look for heroic uplift from them; they portray genuine people trying to live as best they can – like those of us without wheels. This helps give the actors meat to work with, lending dimension to John and Ani that contrasts with the binds that able-bodied Eddie (mental) and Jess (economic) find themselves struggling against. 

The chemistry between Dildine and Karimu is compelling. Mozzi takes someone who is a bitter pill and makes us love her. And Mabbitt has the chops to keep a character that means well but overtalks in that likable lane between pathetic and comic caricature. 

Where will these characters be when the “bill” comes due? “Cost of Living” runs through April 30 at Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at AmericanLivesTheatre.org.

GHDT: Ancient yet familiar story of power, plague, and redemption

By John Lyle Belden

I am the most casual fan of dance programs there is. I appreciate it in a general sense, but have not studied or participated intensively. Still, I continue to be amazed and delighted by the visual storytelling skills of Gregory Glade Hancock.

On April 7-9, a week before Passover, Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre presented its “Exodus,” a modern story in movement inspired by the ancient story of Moses. It premiered in 2019, with plans to perform again the next year, but our modern plagues pushed the date back to this month.

The themes include freedom from oppression, as well as sacrificial love. In consideration of this, as well as Hancock dedicating this – like much of his work – to the memory of his mother, he chose to have the central figure, the Chosen One, performed by a woman. Entrusted with this role is Olivia Payton, full of passion and sacred sense of duty. In place of the Biblical Pharoah, we have The Prosecutor; Thomas Mason struts the stage, projecting authority while at times struggling with it.

Other individual roles, as well as the Slaves and Plagues, are performed by Abigail Lessaris, Hannah Brown, Chloe Holzman, Zoe Maish, Josie Moody, Audrey Springer, and Rebecca Zigmond.

The Persecutor’s army of Oppressors are danced by Ellen Burks, Grace Burks, Taylor Colter, Adrian Dominquez, Zoe Hacker, Allie Hanning, Kloie Hargrove, Audrey Holloway, Molly Kinkade, Moriah Knuth, Kallie Leib, Grace Mazurek, Evangeline Meadows, Rachel Morrow, Leah Pitman, Maria Porter, Sophia Rice, Hillary Riley, Alexia Rumrill, Rachel VonDommelen, and Elissa Weisz.

The Chosen as a young prince was Leighton Metcalfe; other children were Fiadh Flynn, Poppy Lomax, Vincent Kitchen, Violet Kitchen, Elli Thacker, and Megan Webb.

Aside from the Academy of GHDT, the company included dancers from Anderson University; The Conservatory of Dance, Granger, Ind.; and Ballet Arts of Peru, Ind.

Choreography and Costumes were by Hancock, who also credits much of the look and feel to the show to Ryan Koharchik’s lighting and set design. Dance styles vary from boldly modern to living animations of hieroglyphics, exciting and always clear in their intent.

We are presented with the plight of the oppressed from the opening moments, confined by a curtain of chain-link fence. As slave children are rounded up, a desperate Mother (Lessaris) leaves her infant in a basket for the Persecutor’s Daughter (Brown) to find. In time this Child grows (Metcalfe, Payton), knowing privilege but feeling for those in shackles. A moment of compassion leads to violence, and exile. The Chosen encounters a sacred Burning Bush (an expertly flowing grouping of about a dozen dancers, pulsing with life like a landbound sea anemone) and she understands what she must do.

The Persecutor has no interest in freeing the Slaves. He is surrounded by an army, members uniformly unisex and masked, a familiar emblem on their hoodies showing they have the “power.”

The oppressed now appear as pale avenging angels, bringing forth plagues that speak to us in the audience: Desecration (pollution) of the Earth, Gun Violence, Racism, War, Poverty, Crime, Social Media (apathy), uncaring Government, and Selfishness. To drive the point home, like in the source book, finally the First Born are struck down.

In Act Two, we get parting of the Red Sea, the giving of Commandments, and the people’s disobedience. We also get a joyous reunion, saddened by the story coming full circle. As in the scriptural Exodus, we conclude with our formerly oppressed people in the wilderness, but bold and ready for whatever comes next.

The overall program is thrilling, stunning, and inspiring – the effective telling of an epic story without a single word. Let this be an encouragement to see whatever you can attend by GHDT (next up is an adaptation of “Antony and Cleopatra” in June) and insistence to experience “Exodus” the next time it is revived.

Performances are in downtown Carmel, get information and tickets at GregoryHancockDanceTheatre.org.

Cardinal celebrates woman whose love of numbers helped birth today’s tech

By John Lyle Belden

“Good women make for better men.”

This line, spoken by Ada Byron Lovelace in “Ada and the Engine,” the play by Lauren Gunderson presented by Cardinal Stage in Bloomington, is a good summation of the young Countess’s collaboration with fellow mathematician Charles Babbage, credited with inventing the precursor to the modern computer. He envisioned the “engine,” but she saw its true potential.

Ada (played by Megan Massie) was the only legitimate child of scandalous and legendary poet Lord Byron and his wife Anabella (Francesca Sobrer). He abandoned them when she was a baby, giving her little more than a verse she would treasure and a family stain upon her reputation.

Perhaps we can credit the rakish poet in a backhanded way for how Ada’s genius flowered, as her mother had her thoroughly schooled in mathematics in a vain attempt to keep her away from creative endeavors. Her voracious appetite for unlocking the mysteries of maths brings Ada into the orbit of Babbage (Eric Olson), who desperately seeks funds for completing his Difference Engine, which could revolutionize accounting by eliminating human error while handling large numbers in making accurate sums. As he and Ada converse, and later correspond, he realizes the machine could be modified and expanded to do more mathematical functions – the Analytical Engine.

Ada’s tutor, Mary Sommerville (Sobrer), warns Babbage he is too old for then-18 Ada, and especially not to invite the scandal many feared would follow her infamous family name. He insists he is only interested in intellectual stimulation, and she settles for a friendship in letters while accepting the courtship and proposal of Lord Lovelace (Kevin Aoussou).

The marriage does little to lessen the tension between Lovelace and Babbage, but they agree to let Ada write a translation of a paper on the Engine, complete with notes to clarify and explain its principles and capabilities – the Notes would not only be twice the length of the original paper, but also give applications and ideas, including a punch-card driven algorithm since credited as the first computer program, beyond what Babbage had envisioned. She even saw its number-crunching for other uses of numeric symbols, including musical notes.

Now, they just have to find some way to build it.

Gunderson’s focus in this drama, aside from Ada’s contributions to STEM, is on the likely relationship between her and Babbage. Historians might take issue with how close their friendship gets. Still, the story respects that given the pressures of British high society at the time, and the facts on record, any deeper love was unrequited. Yet there are some sparks here, which Massie and Olson masterfully wield in their moments alone. Sobrer’s Anabella, though meaning well, can’t help but play the tyrant in her constant diligence against the “Byron madness” that haunts her and her daughter. Aoussou portrays a man in a tough spot, but coming to understand his Ada does love him, as well as her Engine.

Aoussou also gives a nice cameo as Lord Byron himself.

An interesting stage floor, designed by Reuben Lucas, runs down the center of the theater, with audience seating on either side. Director Kate Galvin has the performances balanced with equal face time in each direction. Each end of the stage represents the two sides of Ada’s life: one the Victorian elegance of a British lady, the other a steampunk-inspired vision of Babbage’s world.

Equal parts inspiring and romantic, “Ada and the Engine” gives us a celebration of the lives of arguably the great-grandparents of the machine you are likely reading this on. Performances run through April 16 at Waldron Auditorium, 122 S. Walnut St., Bloomington. Get information and tickets (“pay what you will” pricing) at cardinalstage.org.

Vital to war effort, ‘Fly Babies’ remembered on BCP stage

By John Lyle Belden

For any fan of history, especially if your knowledge of the “aviatrix” begins and ends with Amelia Earhardt, you need to see “Fly Babies,” playing through Sunday at Buck Creek Players.

Based on the actual Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) during World War II, this drama by Rusty Harding, directed by Melissa DeVito, features a portrayal of real-world aviation legend Jackie Cochran, who – among numerous accomplishments – started this civilian corps of women pilots that helped deliver military aircraft around the United States, and train (male) pilots and crew members for deployment overseas. The ever-masculine Army Air Corps kept the program under wraps at the time, with the women only getting their due in recent decades.

At Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, Cochran (Sue Kuehnhold) takes under her wing a flock representing the various types of women aviators who trained for WASP wings: Dotty Moore (Sabrina Duprey), who flew with her father as a crop-duster; Pauline Yates (Cass Knowling), a daredevil barnstormer who keeps on flying despite her husband’s death in a crash; Peggy Taylor (Audrey Duprey), a spoiled socialite whose Daddy had her take flying lessons, then apply for this duty, to buff up the family brand; and Hazel Ying (Maria R. Manalang), representing the few minorities allowed into the program, a veteran of action against the Japanese in her parents’ homeland, China.

Mazy Buford (Alicia Sims) represents one of the less honorable aspects of the story: not even allowed in the all-male Tuskegee Airmen, this experienced African American pilot settled for working as a seamstress and cleaning lady to be as close to the aircraft as she could get.

Adding a little levity and charm is Sgt. Louis Lewis (Josh Rooks), the soldier who can get you anything, and despite his non-stop faulty flirting, is a good and likable guy.

Col. Thomas Evans (Tom Smith) is the officer in charge. He’s not thrilled with the program, but sees its necessity in freeing up men to fly in the War. Less understanding is WASP instructor Cpt. John Whitaker (Logan Browning), a man bitter with prejudice – misogynist and racist – and scarred in mind and body from being shot down in the Pacific. The lone survivor of his squadron, Whitaker took out enough of the enemy to earn a Silver Star, but is too damaged to return to action. He takes no pleasure in training “broads” to fly warbirds, but orders are orders, and he grudgingly comes to admit they are pretty good. The women respect his abilities but chafe at his constant meanness; they flip one of his insults – Fly Babies – into a badge of honor.

In the course of their training, Dotty seeks to rectify the injustice done to Mazy, infuriating Cochran, who understands, but also knows pushing the issue could jeopardize the whole program. Meanwhile, some gremlin has been defacing and damaging the WASP training planes. Whitaker insists it’s just harmless “hijinks” by some of the men on the base, but how far will such pranks go?

Dotty in later years is played by Sarah Latimer, in scenes that bookend the story. Stage manager Lauren E. Ruddick steps in as her nurse.

Performances are strong all around. An aviator offstage, Sabrina Duprey adds that confidence to her already impressive talent. Real-world sister Audrey is no slouch either, playing the girl who must become an independent woman who serves not just her family, but her country. Knowling shows no rust in taking her first stage role since high school, giving us one of the more well-rounded characters in the cast. Experienced performer Manalang charms in her first major drama role. Sims brings an important character to life, ranging from expressing the joy of flight to the supreme irritation at how the country she wants to defend treats her. 

Smith plays an apt representative of Army brass, working from tolerating to appreciating to defending the unit he commands. Browning manages to lend some degree of humanity to a very damaged man. Rooks doesn’t take his Radar-esque role too far, projecting a clear sense of duty under the goofy exterior, as well as honest affection. Kuehnhold plays Cochran as both mission-focused and a mama-bear, rock steady always.

In this high-stakes high-pressure environment, the story does take tragic turns. Social attitudes of the era cannot be avoided, either. Appropriate in context, but disturbing to modern ears, there are some racial-ethnic slurs against both Blacks and Asians. DeVito says these parts of the dialogue were discussed with the cast, who agreed it would be more impactful to be true to the period.

Though overall an imagined story, “Fly Babies” is true to the history and shines a light on a nearly forgotten part of America’s effort in winning WWII. Opening-night turnout was surprisingly low. Hopefully more will come out to see this inspiring play, 8 p.m. Friday or Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday (April 8-10) at BCP, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74), Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at BuckCreekPlayers.com.