Encore Michigan

‘Willow Run’ at Purple Rose so much more than a “sentimental journey”

Review June 24, 2018 David Kiley

CHELSEA, Mich.–Wasn’t that a time. It was 1942, ’43, ’44 and ’45. The world was literally at war. The whole of America was galvanized, from gold stars in windows to rubber drives, ration books for meat and gasoline and unwelcome cables from Western Union. It took a war, but it was the last time that the whole country was together on a cause and an idea–to save itself and the world.

As we mark the 75th anniversary of the war, we often see and hear nostalgic musical tributes in regional theaters. Netflix is full of documentaries about World War Two. Willow Run, a new play by Michigander Jeff Duncan with original music, and making its world premiere at The Purple Rose Theatre and running through August, is unlike any play this theatre has ever produced.

The Willow Run bomber plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan was the most important defense plant the U.S. built during the war, first producing airplane components in 1941 and then turning out a finished “Liberator” aircraft in less than an hour once it got rolling and until 1945 when the war ended.

Vital to the war effort and Willow Run’s production were women workers who stepped out of their lives as hairdressers, students, waitresses, maids and department store clerks to become riveters on the assembly line. We know these women as “Rosies.” “Rosie The Riveter,” modeled after a real worker at Willow Run, was used as a now iconic recruiting poster to get women to enlist in the home-front war, while combat in Europe and the Pacific was carried out by the men. Women came from all over the country for jobs at Willow Run as the plant ran 24/7 and needed almost 50,000 workers at a time.

Donna Malone (Michelle Mountain), a hairdresser whose husband was overseas in uniform, came right from Ypsilanti, and her brother was already killed in action when we meet her. Lisa Marie Calhoun (Rhiannon Ragland) was a waitress who left her job in Kentucky where the future was bleak and her beau, wounded and left with a limp, was bound by family ties. Berenice Summers (K. Edmonds), an African American with a son in the war, and also from the South, came to the plant to do her bit and make better money than she did as a house maid. Evelyn Stillwell (Lauren Knox) was from Michigan and left her studies preparing to be a teacher to work in the plant while a close friend fought overseas. These women were driven to do their bit as a response to their loved ones making huge sacrifices. They couldn’t just sit home and knit.

There is not that much of a plot in Willow Run. Instead, Duncan’s script, which started out as a play for young audiences called “Rosie The Riveter: The Musical” from The Wild Swan Theatre Company in Ann Arbor, puts us in the middle of the plant as these women of different backgrounds come together. The parallel to a male fighting platoon is clear. In basic training, and then in foxholes and on ships and planes, men from every corner of the U.S. , from backwoods Kentucky to Jersey City, N.J., were thrown together as brothers. Willow Run was more democratic. Black soldiers were grouped together in segregated units until President Truman changed the policy, while women, who became sisters and of both races, were on the riveting line together from the start.

Just as soldiers lived out their despair from the mail–news of girlfriends getting married to 4Fs, mothers, fathers and brothers dying, the hearts of these women beat with the arrival of mail. And probably more so than stoic men in uniform, these women turn to one another for consolation and solace, and create a sisterhood that is every bit as solid and vital as the brotherhood in foxholes and Flying Fortresses.

It is the sacrifice and formation of the sisterhood that is the core of the story. It is the stuff of sacrifice and personal growth in the play that lies beneath the vital role played by women in saving the world. It’s a disgrace that we all don’t know more about that story on a day-to-day basis, because the vital role of saving the world from destruction by men is a story as old as the universe it seems.

The element of Willow Run that makes this a very unique production for  The Purple Rose is the music. This play is not a musical, but rather a play with music–original music written by Rose founder Jeff Daniels, his son Ben Daniels and Brad Phillips who, dressed as a pilot, plays several instruments on stage and is part of the ensemble. The music, including complete songs sung by the cast as well as some solos by the women, perfectly fits the script developed by Duncan under the guidance of director Guy Sanville. Indeed, there is only one scene and song that tries a bit too hard to make a point, but on the whole the play, the integration of new music and a selection of established songs (“Bread and Roses”) is creative, deft and unique. As important as music from The Andrew Sisters and Glenn Miller was to the war effort and morale at home, this new music lifts the play to current relevance, rather than just a look back at the country and ourselves.

It is difficult and almost beside the point in this production to single out the performances of each featured role. Mountain, Ragland and Knox are Rose regulars, and they blend and play off one another beautifully. Ragland may have the toughest task of being the “Rosie” we have reason to like the least, but her likability and tenderness never gets very far from us. K. Edmonds is the only actress to have played the role of Berenice in both the original Rosie play and Willow Run. Edmonds inhabits the role with just enough comedic sass. But when she is told by a landlord (David Bendena) that the only place she can rent is a choice between a converted chicken coop and a tar-paper storage shed, we feel her quiet indignation with no words expressed. She makes her point with her face alone. Knox’s range is on full display, from when she fends off the idea that she is just a dilettante to when she experiences heartbreaking sacrifice. Mountain’s working-class resolute actions tempered with her hair-dresser attention to fashion is lovely.

The ensemble for Willow Run is exceptional. Bendena is elastic and terrific, playing the plant manager, a scheming ration-card trader, a wounded returning vet, a crusty landlord and more. He makes subtle changes to his costuming, but distinctive changes to his character that set the roles apart. Angela Kay Miller toggles between several roles, from the arrogant lady-of-the-house who chides Berenice for leaving her maid job to a riveter and shift supervisor and sings beautifully. Caitlin Cavannaugh, too, compliments the featured roles beautifully. And Brad Phillips nails his presence on stage. Tasked with being an almost ghostly musical presence, he represents, in his pilot jacket and hat, all the men who were giving their last measure in incredibly dangerous duty in the aircraft the ladies were building. While the Rosies were invaluable to the war effort, they were also building those pilots’ coffins.

As expected, the set, designed by Sarah Pearline reflecting the bomber plant and the ladies’ break room, is superb. Costumes by Suzanne Young are heart-grabbing–the beautiful dresses from the time. Tom Whalen is sound designer, and does a vital job in a theatre not used to having so much music in the show.

At a time when the country seems hopelessly divided, it’s difficult to imagine a time in the future when we will be as united around anything as we were in World War Two. Willow Run shows us not so much a road to the past for us to wax nostalgic about–millions died in combat and at the hands of the Nazis and Japanese–but to a time that was much sadder and heartfelt than a musical review would make us feel. As a whole, though, the play is a wonderful shot to our American psyche and consciousness that reminds us that all good things are possible when we are about kindness, courage and compassion all at once. Willow Run is a roadmap to the future, to our better selves, for those willing to follow it.

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