Photo courtesy of Sean Carter photography/Purple Rose
Women were always the backbone of this country during World War II, in which thousands were called upon to serve and protect our great freedom. Sometimes that doesn’t get acknowledge the way it should: Yes, men were off fighting battles that, too often, resulted in tragedy, but back home the wives and mothers were seemingly doing the impossible. So if you think we could’ve won that war without women answering the call, “Willow Run,” which just held its world premiere at The Purple Rose theatre in Chelsea MI, is going to shock you.
Originally a short play for families called “Rosie The Riveter” at The Wild Swan theatre, Ypsilanti playwright, Jeff Duncan has expanded on that story and plants the foundation for “Willow Run” - that’s now taken new formation on The Purple Rose stage. A beautiful story of truth, empowerment and resilience, “Run” is filled with one engaging set piece after another.
Under the stylish direction of The Purple Rose’s Artistic Director Guy Sanville, and featuring original songs from the likes of Ben and Jeff Daniels, “Willow Run” brings the spotlight on a group of four women asserting themselves among the forefront of strong able-bodies in the workplace, with Duncan giving them each their own past and background to chew on.
For Donna (Michelle Mountain) the life of “just” being a beautician isn’t enough, she’s got a husband off in combat, while her kids are in grade school, and you can tell there's a yearning for something more; a feeling that likewise deeply translates for Berenice (K. Edmonds) who hails from Chattanooga, Tennessee, as a colored housemaid struggling to find a purpose that doesn’t involve waiting hand and foot on snotty rich folk. Then you have Evelyn (Lauren Knox), an aspiring school teacher from Ann Arbor, who comes across more as the ‘fish out of water’ type and seemingly has to compete with condescending parents that shoot down her ambitions on a daily basis (“No place for a girl like you” is an utterance quite popular among their vocabulary). And finally we have Liz (Rhiannon Ragland pulling double duty as the shows choreographer too), a free-floating spirit that just wants a place to call home, which doesn’t happen when she can’t tie the knot with her lover upon his discharge, leaving a void that can only be filled by the passion of serving one's country.
These women hardly share any similarities, but they’ve all caught wind of the Willow Run bomber plant near Ypsilanti that’s desperate for workers. Even going as far to pay women $1 an hour wage, which fares the same in comparison to their male counterparts, a radical idea for the war-riddled earlier end of 20th century America. But since these women are strong-willed and determined, they all rise to the occasion, showing up to the factory - after securing lodging from a gentle old man named Roy Baxter in Romulus - ready to bust their chops and produce B-24 bombers at record pace. In the background, they're constantly barked at by a strict supervisor (David Bendena in one of his six rotating roles throughout the production) and become forced to work in some questionably hazardous conditions. Who said war is hell?
They are the Rosie The Riveters if you will, and Costume Designer Suzanne Young maintains that aesthetic well, by conveying the look and feel of this decade. But those costumes wouldn’t look half as good if the actresses in them didn’t own their respective roles. Starting down the line with Edmond taking great lengths as Bernice, who configures what truly makes this woman tick, while conveying the racial tensions and struggles she faces (the script echoes derogatory slang like “coon," and even discrimination from her fellow women at war, such as Liz who refuses to work with a colored girl - a timely reminder of how we are all called to better embrace one another's humanity).
In addition, Mountain exemplifies just the right touch of eccentricity needed for such a flamboyant character (we all know a barber that could talk our ear off). In what could be a career defining role, Knox shines as Evelyn, taking it upon herself to find new variations within the character without creating a forceful performance. There is an impressive believability in the relationship her character has with a pilot overseas, in-part because Duncan’s script gives it time to breathe, and because Knox is masterfully working overtime letting us bask in It.
Lest we forget Ragland (last seen breaking hearts in “Flint”) towing the line between fierce and sassy, without compromising her own morals. Liz seems to be the most complex character of the bunch, and Ragland has the daunting task of embodying that tone. There’s a reason The Purple Rose continues to use her talents: she’s the best fit for these complicated characters, because she is able to push her own excellent boundaries as an actress.
The cast is rounded out exceptionally by the wonderful Angela Kay Miller, Caitlin Cavannaugh and David Bendena who are called upon to fill various miscellaneous roles as the show progresses. Also take notice of Brad Phillips (in his professional acting debut) as a musician that never leaves the stage, guitar in hand, often times supplying the soul-soothing beats to the play's terrific musical catalogue (a personal favorite being “Dance Again” - which could be the song of the summer).
Condensing these three performers into various tasks and duties is an interesting narrative technique, that works wonders for the duration of the shows breezy two hour and fifteen minute runtime; something Sanville always seems to manage well.
Continuing the streak of accomplished set designs on The Rose stage, Sarah Pearline adds her name, once again, to the tier of top-notch scenic designers working in the area today. Implementing a fun old-fashion vibe that greatly aids in getting audiences into the correct mindsight heading into the show. Other technical aspects from the lighting (Noele Stollmack), props (Danna Segrest), and sound (Tom Whalen) elevate ‘Willow Run’ to a summer must-see.
With that said, some of the forced symbolism might clunk you over the head at times (teamwork, racial profiling, etc). And there isn’t as strong a conflict as I would've liked, considering the depth of the characters and their circumstance (“Willow Run” briefly hints at a workers strike, but the issue is quickly resolved). Perhaps this is the case because it was originally made for children, and all of those elements are needed to cement a child-targeted viewing experience; plus when you're adapting something from a one hour production to a full blown two-act opus, these issues are almost anticipated. So while I’d appreciate some more content in that regards, in no way does it take away the value, integrity, or passion of “Willow Run.”
In hindsight, it’s borderline insane how dangerous working conditions used to be or the harsh and cruel objectification women faced every-day. The sad thing is, women are still dealing with these issues, a point that Duncan and Sanville make evident. Together within the walls of this show, they’re leading the charge to fight misogynistic viewpoints, and in the process have collaborated to create something truly special. It’s vital that parents with little ones (especially girls) are given the chance to view “Willow Run,” so they can see strong examples of females who aren’t afraid to stand up for what they believe in.
IF YOU GO:
"Willow Run" continues its run at The Purple Rose through September 1st
For more information or to purchase tickets call (734) 433-7673 or go to
All of the above photos courtesy of Purple Rose theatre/Sean Carter photography