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Wrens
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2012-09-19

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Playwright: Anne McGravie. At: Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, 5779 N. Ridge Avenue. Tickets: 773-334-7728; www.rivendelltheatre.org; $30. Runs through: Oct. 13

What distinguishes Anne McGravie's portrait of life in the Women's Royal Navy Services (WRNS) from the standard-issue G.I. Jane comedies or soapers is that McGravie was there, HERSELF, and the events she recounts, she witnessed first-hand. Playgoers listening closely can even spot her surrogate persona among the characters. (Hint: She's the one who keeps a journal.)

Our squad of "wrens"—as the WRNS troops were dubbed—are housed elbow to elbow in a corrugated steel Nissan hut (Quonset, to us Yanks) on a remote island in the North Sea. They are the diverse lot we expect of this genre, their speech a mélange of Scottish, Welsh and English regional dialects, precision-drilled by the uncredited Kathy Logelin. On this spring day in 1945, with the end of the war in Europe imminent, their thoughts unanimously turn to their re-assimilation into civilian life—to husbands and boyfriends who may no longer be the boys the now-wiser girls left behind, and to the circumscribed social circles from whose restrictions the recent wartime exigencies delivered them. At this final moment, though, one of them sustains an injury that must be concealed from their superiors, forcing her bunkmates to decide if they will support her, and in doing so, risk their own futures.

Every war spawns, literally, hundreds of stories exemplifying men overcoming their differences to work together for a common goal, but the notion of women engaging in group action has always been rather revolutionary. Don't be fooled by the quaint period locale or the sorority-house bickering initially invoked for expository purposes, however. Soon the concerted efforts of these independent and resourceful comrades-in-arms take on an urgency and suspense to equal any bunker-drama commando operation as our band of sisters discard their prejudices to unite in covert defiance of military protocol—insubordination receiving our hearty endorsement, by the way.

Don't come expecting a recruiting poster—McGravie's candor pulls no punches in its assertion that problems faced by female soldiers in 1945 continue to this day. That said, Rivendell Theatre Ensemble lives up its name under Karen Kessler's direction, its cast forging a camaraderie engendering esprit de corps immediately recognizable to real-life veterans (like me) and home-front auxiliaries alike, while the production's technical team immerses us in our environment right down to the postage on the letters. Carry on, ladies!


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