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.