“O for a Muse of fire…”
George Brant’s World War II-era comedy, “Into the Breeches!”, directed by Jessica Thebus playing at Northlight Theatre, brings the homefront story to Evanston, Illinois and the fictional Oberon Playhouse, whose producing director—and virtually every other enlistment-age man in town—is serving overseas. Facing the cancellation of the company’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henriad”—Henry IV Parts I and II and Henry V—the director’s wife and producing partner, Maggie (Darci Nalepa), proposes to cast the show with women instead. Hilarity ensues when it becomes clear that Maggie’s success will be measured by her ability to convince and appease the demands of both the company diva, Celeste Fielding (Hollis Resnik), and the stalwart board chair, Ellsworth Snow (Fred Zimmerman), at every turn.
There is a certain amount of hand-holding for each of the other players, too. Grace Richards (Annie Munch), who has recently moved to town, struggles with her confidence, and June Bennett (Molly Hernandez) is wrapped up tightly in supporting the war effort. With few options after auditions, Maggie enlists Fred’s socialite spouse Winifred (Penny Slusher) to take a turn at Falstaff. All the while, the company’s creative team—stage manager Stuart Lasker (Mitchell J. Fain) and costumer Ida Green (Penelope Walker)—help keep Maggie and the cast on something akin to the accordion-like schedule that Maggie’s husband had originally proposed.
Amid the playhouse backdrops and scenery, the women rehearse under the watchful and demanding presence of Resnik’s Fielding, whose brilliant comic sensibilities are on full display. From giving new meaning to the phrase “Walk like a man” to the hilarious arc of rehearsals for the play within the play, Brant’s characters come to life as quirky, unique and likeable.
The play also necessarily engages us in the ever-present prevailing drama of the war’s impact on those at home. With limited contact from their spouses, the contrasting dilemma Maggie and Grace share evolves into a heartfelt relationship and a touching moment for Nalepa and Munch that binds them together. Hernandez’s natural enthusiasm embodies the rallying spirit of patriotism of the time.
In the end, art and theater find a way to influence everyone. When Stuart’s failed efforts to enlist draw attention, a major transformation results. The racial bias toward Ida’s involvement are an equally stark reminder of the prevailing social stigma of the era. Both situations provide Fain and Walker ample room to navigate the emotional channels. Slusher’s endearing performance as Penny, the company’s blossoming rogue, succeeds in achieving solidarity in her marriage and with everyone around her.
The contribution of women on the homefront was the tipping point for the women’s movement in the post-war years. Thebus’s fine ensemble and creative team—Arnel Sancianco’s set and costumes by Samantha C. Jones—illuminate a story that serves as much as a glimpse into the inner workings and politics of the performing-arts world as it does a telling commentary on gender equality and women’s rights, with lots of room for laughs along the way.