Sixteen guys and one nurse together aboard a Navy ship may sound unconventional, but then the USS Reluctant isn't just any wartime vessel. It's a cargo ship and the setting for the World War II comedy Mister Roberts, currently playing at the Largo Cultural Center's Eight O'Clock Theatre.
"When I submitted five shows, this is the one I pushed," said director Jim Bennett, who played Ensign Pulver in a 1988 production of the show. "I was told I'd never be able to get this many men to perform in this dramedy, if you will. I had a cast of 14 out of the gate. Getting the rest together took two weeks, and working with them has been fantastic."
"I have a fondness for it, a love of the story," added Bennett, who returns to directing after a 12-year hiatus. "And I wanted to honor the military. I'm a big fan of veterans and what they have done for us."
Both of Bennett's grandfathers served as B-24 Liberator pilots during World War II.
Mister Roberts, as dramatic as it is funny, serves as more than a nod to veterans. More like a salute to wounded troops, in the form of a fundraiser.
Celebrating 30 years, Eight O'Clock Theatre has teamed up with Operation Rebound, a nonprofit group that gives grants for sports equipment, competition and training to injured active-duty military veterans and first responders. People who served their country, like the characters in Mister Roberts.
"The play is about real guys — someone's father, brother, uncle and cousin," said Trey Ryan, who plays Roberts. "I rank this role as one of the top 10 a male actor can play. Jim pushed me over and over to step up and be the leader of all these guys."
Ryan said he had watched the movie over the years and went back to read the novel in preparation to get the role "dead on," so audiences might better connect with the Roberts' idealism.
When the theater lights dim, the audience will step into the past aboard the Reluctant, as authentic as it can get short of transporting the audience to a naval shipyard. Costumes too will tease the memories of those who remember sailors of the '40s.
"We needed khaki covers for the hats," said costume designer Kathy Sutton. "They cost $75 each, and I wasn't paying that."
So Sutton made them.
First a novel, then a play, written by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan, Mister Roberts became a movie, staring Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell and Jack Lemmon.
Zackhary Myers plays the role of Ensign Pulver, a young slacker who does nothing but dream of elaborate hoaxes to play on the captain, yet never has the nerve to pull one off. Myers is a recent theater college graduate from Cincinnati.
"I'm excited to play the role that boosted Lemmon's career," Myers said. "Comedy is such a big part of my life, being the second of 10 kids. I think that translates in my role onstage."
Lou Russo is playing a very different role than he's played before: Capt. Morton.
"I spend a lot of time yelling and everybody hates me on the ship," Russo said. "But what's most important is, this shows the boredom that can happen in everyday life of people serving their country, even in wartime. Roberts wants to go to war, he doesn't want the monotony of working on a cargo ship."
Roberts writes letter after letter asking for a transfer, which makes an enemy of Capt. Morton
Yet levity pervades, especially when the sailors see the opposite sex. Even if it's through binoculars. Melissa Labiak plays Nurse Anne Girard, the lone woman in the cast.
"I watched the movie in college," Labiak said. "For the role, I looked at era costumes, mannerisms of the women, how they interacted and behaved, and I learned about rank. It's been fun working with the guys."
The cast is giving its all to make the performance as memorable as the generation it depicts.
"I'm honored to be able to direct this play," Bennett said. "The story pulls at your heart and makes you laugh until your gut hurts."