Inspired by his wife’s work with the 100th-anniversary celebration of the Cleveland Play House, George Brant found himself delving into historical records on how women kept theater alive while men were fighting on the front lines during World War II. As a result of his research, Brant penned the play Into the Breeches, leaving room for regional theaters to incorporate a bit of their own history into the show, which brings us to the Theatre Raleigh production.
Here we are transported to a local theater in Raleigh during the 1940s where Maggie Dalton, the artistic director’s wife, is determined to produce Shakespeare’s three Henry plays: Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V. Undaunted by the fact that there are no men to perform the roles, Maggie enthusiastically pitches the idea of an all-female production and then uses some instinctual cajoling to gain support from the theater’s Board President, Ellsworth Snow (executed with wonderful comedic timing by Derrick Ivey). After all, how can he say no when his wife, Winfred (a hilarious Kathy Day), wants to be a part of the show?
Melissa Macleod gives a comically sturdy performance as the resourceful and harried Maggie, who not only must steer an amateur troupe, but also corral the haughtiness of the resident diva, Celeste Fielding. Dana Marks commands the stage as Celeste, while conveying an undercurrent of fears that plague an aging star.
But Brant’s play wants to be more than just a comedy about women performing men’s roles. As the women begin exploring their characters during rehearsals, they are confronted with the realities of sexism, racism, and homophobia. Tense moments punctuate the humor as inequities are exposed, providing social commentary on the times and elevating the idea of theater as a transformative experience.
Jenny Latimer’s thoughtful direction keeps the show from being overly sentimental or preachy. The performances by Harper Cleland as June and Tori Jewell as Grace, two young wives, become all the more captivating as their characters embrace the new opportunities and freedoms presented to them while their men are away at war.
Yet it is Stuart (Jesse Gephart), and Ida (Kia Dunn), the company’s stage manager and the costume designer, respectively, who nudge the narrative around inclusion. Both convincingly capture the pain of being excluded while also pushing the others to confront societal inequities.
In the end, the inspiring St. Crispin speech, delivered by Jewell (as Grace) underscores the need for community when faced with difficult circumstances and the courage to embrace a new reality. Perhaps that is the inspiration we need now as well.