‘Into the Breeches!’ gets the literary party started for New Stage’s 54th season

By SHERRY LUCAS - MISSISSIPPI TODAY,

“Into the Breeches!” opens New Stage Theatre’s 54th season with a comic splash, an ensemble cast and a pull-together spirit that toasts the power of art in community.

Now playing through September 22, the comedy looks in on 1942 Jackson, Mississippi — a setting customized with local and regional shoutouts — where the men are off to war and the women are on to … the stage. On the home front, with the theater director and leading men battling the enemy overseas, their womenfolk are battling nerves, self-confidence issues, latent dreams and undercurrents of sexism and more to prove the show must go on.

The Oberon Play House’s director’s wife, Maggie Dalton (played by Jessica Wilkinson), presses forward with the production of Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” even if an all-female cast must step into breeches to do it. “I’ve been assisting him for the past 18 seasons. Now he’s off to war and I’ve been left with the reins,” Wilkinson says of her character. She’s driven to continue her husband’s dream of mounting “Henry V” to rally the troops with patriotic glory and the spirit of victory. “It’s the perfect story to tell during World War II.”

But that’s an uphill struggle for her, both within and without. “It’s not about ability, but she has neither the confidence nor the respect to be a good director at the beginning of the play, but there’s a process,” Wilkinson says. “It doesn’t stay that way.” That’s a journey fellow ensemble members travel as well.

“Into the Breeches!” starts a New Stage season that’s themed “A Literary Party,” with plays that have a literary backdrop (Shakespeare in this case), or are based on books. The new play by George Brant was originally set in Providence, R.I., but with permission from the playwright, the locale was changed to Jackson, with mentions of Camp Clinton, Jitney Jungle, Camp Shelby, Ole Miss, Bogue Chitto and more. The story references details, too, of what was happening on the 1942 home front, such as scrap drives, rationing, even knitting.

The comedy in “Into the Breeches!” comes as people of different ages and backgrounds are thrown into new surroundings — so, it’s situational and a little screwball, as they forge relationships and find their way. The wealth and diversity of strong female roles suit the theater’s stable of strong female actors, making it a good pick to launch the season, says Francine Thomas Reynolds, New Stage artistic director and director of this production. “It’s like a love letter to theater … these Rosie the Riveter-type women rallying to put on the play.”

Obstacles range from a producer (Ray McFarland) convinced “a bunch of girls” can’t take this on, to the director dealing with — “I don’t want to use the word inept, but …” Wilkinson starts — several ladies who don’t have a clue, including one who’s “hilariously atrocious” at the outset.

That would be character Winifred Snow, wife of the show’s producer and “a high-society lady as ditzy as the day is long,” Jo Ann Robinson, who plays her, says with a chuckle. Good-hearted and sweet, she’s also “the most clueless one.”

As Grace Richards, Annie Cleveland portrays a young mother with a husband in the Air Corps overseas and a young son at home. A meek person with little support or encouragement from home, she’s always wanted to audition for a play and may bring raw talent to the task. “She’s very nervous, pretty shy … The first time you meet her, she can barely string a sentence together in front of people.

“But by working with this group of women and working on this play, she finds this confidence and resolve in herself … that she didn’t have before. .. She gives herself permission to be good at something.”

Women strapping on men’s roles — yes, that’s funny, too, Cleveland says, “but you also get to see them be good at it.”

“You find out it doesn’t matter if they’re men or women,” Reynolds adds, “because it’s Shakespeare.”

In theater, a cast forms a close bond, almost like family, as they come together to tell a story — “a weird process,” says Wilkinson, that’s unique in the way the results can move, broaden and push people both in the cast and in the audience.

“Into the Breeches!” shows that with humor, poignancy and heart, she says. “It’s this really beautiful little story about how powerful theater can be, from many different perspectives.”

Performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 22. Tickets are $30 adults/$25 students, seniors and military at the theater box office at 1100 Carlisle St., online at www.newstagetheatre.com or by phone, 601-948-3533. “Into the Breeches!” is recommended for ages 11 and older.

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