Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Censored’ sheds light on women’s air corps struggles

Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Censored’ sheds light on women’s air corps struggles

The UW-Green Bay play is part of an elaborate flurry of events.

PHOTO: The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Theatre and Dance production of “Censored on Final Approach” includes, from left, Ashley Skoglund, Ashley Wisneski, Sydney Haessly and Hannah Blecha. R. Michael Ingraham photo

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – “Censored on Final Approach” is an I-didn’t-know-that play that the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Theatre and Dance has the honors of producing as a centerpiece of a substantial set of events on campus and off. Performances run through March 8; info: Info: www.uwgb.edu/tickets.

Through playwright Phylis Ravel’s curiosity, guest director Shifra Werch and the cast explore the guts of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) of World War II. On its face, the story is not one for the theatrical grist mill and its title is clunky/academic, but the script and cast express the thrills, struggles, vitriol, emotions and determination of the women whose role is tucked away on a back shelf of history. The thoroughness is carried through in all facets. The overture of sorts is made up of hit songs from the era (“Take the ‘A’ Train,” “In the Mood,” “Begin the Beguine,” among others). Fitting in are the costuming of uniforms and military work wear and women’s clothing, plus shoes, along with 1940s hairstyles. The set includes aircraft support panels as floor ramps, with two wings flying (in a theatrical way) above the stage and serving as screens for dual projections of WASP planes, patriotic images and historical scenes.

Four actresses represent the corps: Ashley N. Skoglund as Elizabeth Langley, a military brat who knows the inner workings of the military and is de facto leader. Ashley Wisneski as Gerry Hansen, for whom flying is a sensual kick (depicted) and who wrestles with harsh realities of men and women at war in the same place (where fairness is no priority). Sydney Haessly as Mary O’Conner, a fresh-from-the-farm girl who comes with comical naivety and a pure love of flying. Hannah K. Blecha, as Catherine Watts, the wise one, the pragmatic and yet daring one. Pieced together, the performances sketch an engaging picture. Just so you know but without giving too much away, people die in the play; it does have impact.

Three other roles figure prominently. Two are major forces, period. Andrew Delaurelle portrays Major John Stephenson, a by-the-book, you’d-better-listen-to-me leader who skirts orders because he detests having the “powder puff pilots” in HIS camp. Stephanie Frank is Jacqueline Cochran, a true-life star in the universe of women fliers whose iron will clashes with the male military brass and even her charges. The Cochran hard resolve is depicted in her stance, feet set apart in the manner of a man who wants to let others know he IS. (I don’t know much about Cochran, but it seems to me she is not kindly depicted through the artistic liberties taken; still, it’s a definite characterization). The third key role is held by Randall J. Tranowski as Lieutenant Paul Ryder, whose personality ranges from leering to dutiful to bigoted to mean to concerned, plus more. Talk about an amalgamated character; there’s lots for Tranowski’s palette.

For me, the opening of the play is not clear enough to understand what was so important that, in 1955, there is a flashback to 1943. That’s not a big deal because of the crux throbs anyway. Also odd, to me, is the addition of music in a scene between Lieutenant Ryder and Gerry Hansen, as if the audience needs an assist to know what feelings it is to feel.

Overall, it is a full-bodied production (4½ stars out of 5) that fits the university’s 360˚ brand.

***

Creative credits: Phylis Ravel, playwright; Shifra Werch, director; Jeffrey P. Entwistle, scenic designer; Elizabeth Reinke, properties designer; Kaoime E. Malloy, costume designer; R. Michael Ingraham, lighting/sound designer and technical director; David Cook, assistant technical director; Erin Gerard, stage manager.

Cast (alphabetical order): Evan R. Ash (Artillery Officer); Ashley N. Skoglund (Elizabeth Langley); Tyler Miles (PFC Donald Foster); Adam W. Meyer (Pilot/Serviceman); Cody Galligan (Wayne Langhorn); Scott Klapperich (Artillery Trainee); Randall J. Tranowski (Lieutenant Paul Ryder); Hannah K. Blecha (Catherine Watts); Ashley Wisneski (Gerry Hansen); Sydney Haessly (Mary O’Connor); Stephanie Frank (Jaqueline Cochran); Andrew Delaurelle (Major John Stephenson).

Crew: Erin Gerard (stage manager); Cody Von Ruden (assistant stage manager); Jeff Chesebro (video technician); Rebecca Kellner (sound); Libby Reineke (prop master); Liz Galba (costume head); Joey Hart, Abby Stuckey (costume crew); Katie Akerboom (props); Jordan Heller (dramaturge).

***

ASSOCIATED EVENTS: UWGB Theatre and Dance is collaborating with university and community organizations for activities related to the themes of the play. Observing Women’s History Month and the opening of Green Bay’s new veterans clinic, the groups will present a series of events under the heading “Theatre Inspiring Conversations.” 

- Panel discussion: “Take Your Daughter to Listen: Women Pioneers,” 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 4, Neville Public Museum of Brown County, 210 Museum Place, Green Bay. Panel includes Jessie Garcia, sportscaster, mother, author; Sidney H. Bremer, former CEO of UW-Marinette, UWGB Women’s and Gender Studies co-founder, author; Donna Streckenbach, businesswoman, The Bridal Church and The Bridal Chapel in Door County; Kathy Hinkfuss, CEO, YWCA; Beverly French, former owner of Orde Advertising, Weidner Center Presents, Inc. Board and Green Bay Packers Board; and Eileen Littig, award-winning filmmaker and television producer. The event is presented in conjunction with UWWG Women’s and Gender Studies and the American Association of University Women. It is free and open to the public.

- Panel discussion: “Women in War and Peace: Conversations with Women Veterans,” 4:30 p.m. Thursday, March 6, Christie Theatre, UWGB University Union. The panel will consist of female veterans from Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and World War II. Scheduled to participate is Betty Strohfus, 94, one of the surviving veterans of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. Strohfus is expected to attend a performance of the play and visit the EAA Museum in Oshkosh where the collection includes an AT-6 combat trainer of the type Strohfus flew as a WASP, and taught male fighter pilots to fly before they went overseas. The panel discussion is presented in conjunction with UWGB Veterans Services. It is free and open to the public.

- “Not at Ease: A Veteran Print Project,” ongoing through June 1, Neville Public Museum. Featuring original artist prints from the Wisconsin Veterans Museum’s collection, “Not at Ease” was created through the veterans print project, which seeks to document oral history through artwork. The project paired 20 female Wisconsin veterans with 20 printmakers, with veterans sharing their stories and artists creating prints inspired by the discourse. The event is presented in conjunction with the Neville Public Museum and the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, Madison. For admission and other information, visit www.nevillepublicmuseum.org.

- WASPS exhibit, on display during March, which is Women’s History Month, in the UWGB University Union. The museum display is on loan from the WASP Museum in Sweetwater, Texas. The event is free and open to the public.

***

VENUE: The 99-seat Jean Weidner Theatre is a fully outfitted black-box space (no adornments; focus on the stage). For “Censored on Final Approach,” the performance space is set up with a straight-front seating area. (Productions sometimes are set up with seating on three sides). The intimate space demands the actors be focused on performance, despite being surrounded by prying eyes, up close. The theater is the smallest of three contained in the Edward W. Weidner Center for the Performing Arts.

THE PERSON: Jean Weidner was a psychotherapist and wife of Edward Weidner, founding chancellor of UWGB. The Weidners had four children. Jean Weidner died in 1997. A memorial service was held for her on the stage of the Weidner Center’s main stage amid spectacular set pieces of a touring production of “The Phantom of the Opera.”

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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