REVIEW WRITTEN BY CHERYL THORNBURG
@MercArtsCheryl on Twitter
Not many plays give me goose bumps, but there are several moments in Steel River Playhouse’s current production, “Court-Martial at Fort Devens,” that did just that.
Staged in the intimate Newberry Loft, the actors are just a few feet from the audience and you feel you are a part of the drama that is happening on stage.
The plot, based on a true story from World War II, adds to that sense of time and place as you experience a pivotal, but virtually unknown moment in history. It is the story of young black women who joined the recently formed Woman’s Army Corps, championed by Eleanor Roosevelt. They were promised training as medical technicians and assigned to Fort Devens in Massachusetts.
Although they initially begin that training, they are quickly reassigned to cleaning duties by Colonel Kimball, the bigoted officer in charge of the base. His actions and words set in motion a remarkable and courageous decision by a few of the women to disobey orders and face court martial in order to call attention to the racist policies and inequities in the military.
In order to make playwright Jeffrey Sweet’s script ring true, it takes a talented cast and director Polly Rose Edelstein has lined up some of the finest actors in the area to tell this story.
Winona Wyatt radiates a quiet strength and dignity as Virgina Boyd, the young woman who gave up a good job at the Treasury Department to become a medical technician through the WAC program. There are no fiery speeches, she leads by example as she decides not to accept the status quo.
By her side is the feisty Johnnie Mae, played with just the right amount of spunk by Raven Dailey. The pair set in motion the quiet rebellion that eventually will change military procedures and policies.
Two other Army career women are sympathetic to their situation, and try to help, but are limited and bound by Army regulations.
Sara Osi Scott plays Tenola Stoney, a young black woman who has achieved the rank of lieutenant, who is brought in to head the African-American unit. Scott delivers a compelling performance as she deals with inner conflict between what is morally right and her duty to follow regulations as an Army officer.
Dan Hickey had probably the toughest challenge, playing Col. Kimball, the blatantly racist commander in charge of the base. With the character having virtually no redeeming qualities, Hickey still managed to make Kimball believable, rather than a caricature.
Tim Golden, a lawyer in real life, plays Julian Rainey the civilian attorney who defends the woman at their court martial. Golden’s powerful delivery of his closing remarks literally gave me goose bumps and hammered home the importance of this event.
Most of the actors are making their Steel River debut, but Sharon Eyster has taken on some memorable roles, including the Mother Abbess in “The Sound of Music.” She demonstrates her dramatic skills in this production as Victoria Lawson, the woman in charge of training the WACs. Although she is white, Lawson sympathizes and understands the women’s feelings, because women in general are also discriminated against in the Army. She goes to bat for them as best she can, but like Stoney hits a brick wall of regulations.
Many of the cast members play multiple roles, but Tim Richards gets to show off three very different personalities. He plays the flirtatious patient, Curtis; the flamboyant, Mr. Steele who “speaks” for the NAACP and Rev. Hughes, whose impassioned sermon closes the show with a thought-provoking message about what is morally right.
Vince Raffaele, (who is not a lawyer in real life), plays the prosecutor who is duty-bound to convict the women. Raffaele hits just the right balance of doing his job well, with an underlying note of not fully believing in what he is doing.
Shamika Byrd plays multiple roles as well, but shines as Gertrude, a compassionate WAC who seemed to be perfectly suited to the medical profession.
Thanks to this gifted ensemble, we are taken on a profound journey to a time and place more than 60 years ago to witness the courage of ordinary people who made an extraordinary difference. Because of them, some things changed … and yet today, at times we are still dealing with the same issues of what is legally right versus what is morally right. That is what is special about “Court Martial at Fort Devens,” it not only sheds light on a little-known historic event, but also makes us think about how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.
IF YOU GO: “Court Martial at Fort Devens” continues through Feb. 15 at Steel River Playhouse, 245 E. High St. in Pottstown.
Tickets are $15 to $19 and are available online at www.steelriver.org, or by calling the box office at 610-970-1199. You can choose your seat when you book online.
On Feb. 13, playwright Jeffrey Sweet will join the audience to conduct a post-show talkback about the play. On Saturday Feb. 14, he will show off his funny side with a 2 p.m. matinee performance of his one-man show “You Only Shoot the Ones You Love.” Tickets for that show are $15 and are available online or by calling the box office at 610-970-1199.