By John Lyle Belden
During World War II, Fort Benjamin Harrison had America’s largest Reception Center for soldiers joining the Allied effort. Meanwhile, the civilians in Lawrence, Ind., adapted to life in wartime. Things were going to be different, but it helps to have something familiar.
This sets the scene for Indy Bard Fest’s production of “Into the Breeches!” by George Brant, at, appropriately, Theater at the Fort through Sunday.
The Shakespeare-focused Oberon Theater has gone dark as the male actors and crew have gone off to fight, but Maggie Dalton (Madeline Dulabaum) honors her husband’s wish to keep the stage alive by producing the Henriad (Shakespeare’s Henry IV and V plays) with a small cast of women – a thing no one would even imagine trying before 1942. But these are highly unusual times, and Maggie has convinced the Oberon’s legendary Celeste Fielding (Susan Hill) to take a lead role. Still, board chairman Ellsworth Snow (Kelly Keller) isn’t on board until his wife, Winnifred (Tracy Herring), expresses interest in taking a part.
With the help of stage manager Stuart (Kaya Dorsch) and costumer Ida (Anja Willis), Maggie auditions and casts servicemen’s wives June (Michelle Wafford), who is heavily involved in homefront resource drives, and Grace (Dani Gibbs), who sees this as a way not to dwell on the dangers her husband must be facing.
“We happy few”? Not entirely. For diva Celeste, it’s Prince Hal or nothing; and the company risks it all by the necessity of casting Ida, who is Black, and Stuart coming out of the closet to take the female roles. Mr. Snow is again concerned, to say the least.
This is a wonderful production, with bright optimism tempered by the shadows of war, an excellent snapshot of life on the Homefront, with its own distinct stresses. Performances are heroic, starting with Dulabaum’s portrayal of how stage director is such a varied rank – from the leadership of a field officer to the cunning of that enlisted hand who always comes up with just what the company needs.
Hill makes Celeste both adorable and unbearable, impossible and essential – her method for helping fellow actors “man up” is a comic high point. Wafford is a “Do your part!” poster at full volume, but also unwavering in her love of the stage. Gibbs is a stellar talent playing one realizing her own potential, and the strength necessary to endure a lack of news from the front.
Willis gives insight on facing inequality at home in a land fighting for freedom overseas. Dorsch gives us Stuart’s personal dedication and bravery in what was a dangerous time on all fronts. Herring is a delight, especially as Winnifred discovers her inner Falstaff. As for Keller as the frustrated husband, how he has Ellsworth come around is too adorable to spoil here.
A big salute to director Max Andrew McCreary for putting this together, including stage design, with the help of Natalie Fischer and stage manager Case Jacobus.
For information on this and future Bard Fest productions, visit indybardfest.com.