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A CurtainUp Review
Sky Girls
by Julian and Rhona Frazin

Jen Engstromas Mags and Ana Sferruzza as DeLang.
Before there was Sally Ride and her history making space flight, there was the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPS), an unheralded, but heroic company of female civilian pilots. Sky Girls by Jennifer Laird, now in its world premiere production at Northlight Theatre in suburban Chicago, plays ample tribute to these spirited young women who trained and toiled from 1942 to 1944 at dust-blown Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Under the command of glamorous aviatrix Jackie Cochran, they performed a range of duties indispensable to the war effort-towing targets for gunnery training, ferrying fighter planes across country and test piloting equipment. They endured insult and sabotage from their male military counterparts, and in the most egregious slight of all, were denied military status and benefits by Congress-a wrong finally rectified in 1977, when President Jimmy Carter retroactively conveyed full military benefits to WASP veterans.

The story of the WASPS is one that should be told as the nation hails its World War II veterans in filmed tributes such as Band of Brothers and books like Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation. Playwright Laird deserves credit for bringing the story of the Sky Girls to light. However, the play stalls a bit on take off, and doesn't reach a comfortable cruising altitude until well into the second act, when it settles into more lyrical and sustained story telling.

In the first act, Laird introduces her five heroines, broadly drawn archetypes not unlike those of World War II battlefield films or Claire Booth Luce's The Women, in jumpsuits and khaki, instead of high couture. They are led by Mags, a tough talking, but ultimately fiercely loyal gal from Chicago's southside, played with swagger and sass by Jen Engstrom; and Bishop (Michele Graff), a wiry, barnstorming veteran of the flying circus whose jocular stoicism and fierce determination and work ethic mask the memory of abandonment. They are joined in their Stalag 17-style barracks by the naïve, romantic Breeny (Paula Stevens), Lil (Julie Ganey) a rich girl from Tennessee and DeLang (Ana Sferruzza), a delicate, haiku-writing crack navigator.

In a series of short Act I vignettes, the women alternately kvetch, swoon and swear to each other and prance and pose for a Movie Tone newsreel. Director BJ Jones does his best with the problematic dramatic device of inserting the historic figure of Jackie Cochran into the fictionalized action. Played with power and ballsy ego by Lia Mortenson, the mink-draped Cochran appears mysteriously at various points in the action, like the Disney-drawn cartoon symbol of the WASPS, Fifinella, who was believed to have magical powers to protect flyers.

The dialog is weighted-down by long strings of 1940's slang, gratuitous references to contemporary screen actors and snips of wartime popular songs like "Coming In on a Wing and a Prayer", "Till the End of Time" and "Remember Pearl Harbor." Unfortunately, they don't mask the fact that there is little significant conversation and even less action that engages the characters.

Dramatic tension finally builds in Act II, when a tragic event gives all the gals a chance to show they've got "the right stuff" and they at last pull together as a family. Up until that point, the plot takes off in too many short-circuited monologues telling of dim-witted brother, a hinted-at lesbian "crush", and an aborted romantic encounter with a Japanese American schoolmate sent off to an internment camp.

Nan Zabriskie's historically accurate costumes fit well into the spectacularly inventive set by Todd Rosenthal. It embraces the sky above and below and literally pulls the audience into the clouds-reminding them of the mysterious attraction that it has always held for mankind-as well as womankind.

Written by Jenny Laird
Directed by BJ Jones
Cast: (in alphabetical order) Jen Engstrom (Mags), Julie Ganey (Lil), Michele Graff (Bishop), Jeff Lupetin, (Movie Tone Announcer), Lia Mortensen (Jackie Cochran), Ana Sferruzza (DeLang), Paula Stevens (Breeny)
Set Design: Todd Rosenthal
Costume Design:Nan Zabriskie
Lighting Design: John Culbert
Original Music and Sound Design: Lindsay Jones
Running time: 120 minutes with one intermission
Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie, (847) 673-6300,
January 29-March 9; opening 2/04/03
Reviewed by Julian and Rhona Frazin based on 2/8/03 performance
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