TAMPA — Tampa Repertory Theatre has always insisted on putting on plays that mean something. Several shows over the last couple of years have zeroed in on the social and cultural baggage that comes with being female (The Children's Hour, Silent Sky and Grounded come to mind). None of those plays take on straight-up sexism as bluntly as Flying, which begins a run across both sides of Tampa Bay.
Not that everything has to be serious in order to be taken seriously. Far from it. But it's a salutary trait that the theater should be so committed to saying something significant about our society in nearly every production.
With Flying, Tampa Rep has produced a play it helped to get started. Producing artistic director C. David Frankel, a University of South Florida theater professor, participated in the first table reading of Sheila Cowley's play four years ago at USF. Since then, the piece about veterans of the Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) has had staged readings in Chicago and London. This year and last, Flying has been a semifinalist, finalist and a national runner-up in three playwriting contests. It premiered in June at the Chenango River Theatre in Greene, N.Y.
For those ambitions and the fact that playwright Sheila Cowley is from St. Petersburg, I wanted to like Flying and kind of did. A little heavy-handed in some ways and too cute in others, it's still the kind of theater we need. I'll get to my reasoning behind each of those characterizations, but first some background.
The historical hook grabs you. During World War II, the Air Force used women as test pilots for B-17 and B-24 bombers, among other planes. Their nerve-wracking duties included servicing junkers to keep them in the air as long as possible. Though they risked their lives in the effort, they received no honors upon discharge and no benefits.
The show, directed by Robin Gordon, is set in a family airfield in small-town America. The mechanics who service the crop dusters are all WASP veterans. Their shoulders sag under the weight of expectations imposed by people who do not understand their pressures or the autonomy they experienced in wartime.
That exhilaration born of risk, coupled with the idea that these women now ought to turn their attention to cakes and pot roasts, is the show's central contrast around which others align.
The front office of River Air functions as a sort of social hub, akin to the police station in Mayberry. Susan (Becca McCoy) runs the business, but all of its marketing mojo comes from Bob, the husband we are told is still in Berlin.
Everyone talks about Bob, a sports star turned war hero. Stories abound about his humor and generosity, his skill as an aircraft mechanic and a legendary catch in a high school baseball game. Susan's father (Joseph Parra), a retired physician, is especially insufferable, passing through frequently and flamboyantly to bask in anticipation of Bob's imminent return.
Through the walls, we hear the occasional eruption of propeller engines starting up, a reminder of the vast spaces between the inner and outer lives of the women who work there. The feisty Lucy (Holly Marie Weber) and war-wizened Laura (Rosemary Orlando), both distinctly drawn characters, round out the WASP contingent.
Though appreciation for their service and expertise would be nice, no one expects that. Nor do the men in the show or calling the airfield even recognize their competence, though the evidence lies all around them. Even the airfield's financial stability depends on Bob, who as I mentioned, is not there.
That's why it is so important that Susan keep his legend alive.
Some fleeting romantic elements, as well as most of the play's immediate tensions, stem from the arrival of Rory, a veteran hobbling on an artificial leg. From overseas, Bob has gifted Rory with a job, even though as a gunner he has no mechanical skills. Justin Smith does a nice job as the handsome stranger who is forced, however grudgingly, to appreciate his co-workers and in the process learns something about himself.
McCoy carries out a precise vision of Susan, who must perpetuate the myth of Bob to keep the business afloat, rather like the buckets of bolts she once flew to the junkyard. We learn more about what's really going on as her layers of denial peel away.
Parra as the dad comes across with the bells and whistles of a seasoned character actor but not much else. His final woozy moments on stage as he, too, copes with the loss of illusion, meant either to connote dementia or an underlying craziness not apparent before then, were particularly unbelievable.
At times Flying seems to be making the same point over and over, that these veterans did not get their due during or after the war. The larger-than-life legend of Bob also comes across loud and clear, to the point of almost endless repetition.
Yet crucial plot points remain opaque. What finally convinces his wife to tell the truth? I have my ideas, but uncertainty persists like an inaccessible itch. That said, Flying is an honest piece of work, and the acting generally hums along at a high level.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.