If you’ve ever wondered what the characters from the 1998 film Pleasantville did during World War II, Willow Run provides your answer. The new play by retired EMU English professor Jeff Duncan is a pleasant show about pleasant people who occasionally relieve the unpleasantness of wartime by breaking into song.
We follow the experiences of four women from different walks of life who work at the Willow Run bomber plant. Despite their differences–one is an Ypsilanti hairdresser, one is an Ann Arbor college student, one is a Kentucky waitress, one is a black Tennessee maid–they are all plucky and charming stereotypes.
They open the show with “Bread and Roses,” a famous song from the labor movement demanding justice and dignity for women workers. It’s a gorgeous song, and one that’s used to good effect.
Things go downhill from there, because the show cannot reconcile its compulsive need for civility with the inescapable fact that it’s portraying a dark time. While there are gestures toward the idea that all was not well in the Arsenal of Democracy, the show hastens to paper them over. A wildcat strike over women’s refusal to wear a coverall that had three back buttons and a drop suit, described by Harriet Arnow in her 1954 book, The Dollmaker, about her experiences at Willow Run, becomes a strike for a woman’s right to be pretty in the workplace; it’s the only thing that keeps their spirits up amidst the drudgery of factory life.
The most uncivil character in the show is the white southerner Liz Marie, whom the show goes to great pains to rehabilitate. Early on, she spouts bigotry at Berenice, the African American Rosie the Riveter, and then gets caught “necking” with a man in one of the factory stairwells. After a contrived accident and an even more contrived emergency blood transfusion from Berenice, Liz Marie becomes a model citizen, apologizing for her racism and marrying the man from the stairwell; Berenice is even her maid of honor.
The show is so desperate to present us with an entertaining and beguiling picture of Americans acting civil in uncivil times that it rejects character development, plot, and history in favor of nostalgia for a time that never actually existed. This project is aided by Jeff and Ben Daniels’ original music, which eschews the era’s fervently political folk scene in favor of a twenty-first-century coffeehouse style of languid, sepia-tinged Americana.
It’s a pity that the play, first staged at the Wild Swan Theatre, was expanded but not matured when picked up by the Purple Rose. Despite truly excellent acting from all the cast and a top-notch set design, it’s a simplistic show that gives us a few facts but no truths.
The show runs every Wednesday to Sunday through September 1.