Ides of March Productions

at Center Theater

The simple, straightforward assessment of an audience member sitting near me was right on the mark. “This is a nice play,” he said. Waiting for the Parade, the first play staged by a group called Ides of March Productions, is a nice play. The author, John Murrell, an American who has lived for many years in Calgary, Canada, has pieced together a touching portrait of five Calgary women enduring the loneliness, anxiety, and confusion brought on by World War II. The production is nice too, considering the financial and technical limitations of a fledgling theater company. Jeff Harris’s handsome set transforms the compact stage of the Center Theater into a deep, spacious attic. The lighting, by someone named Pooh, divides this set into a variety of playing spaces. And most of the five women who make up the cast turn in solid performances.

All in all, this is a nice effort indeed–like a blind date who’s described as nice. You know, good-hearted but not very exciting. If you go to this play, you’ll probably have a nice time–but don’t expect to fall in love with it.

Waiting for the Parade is one of those plays that seem to be derived from old issues of Life magazine–the primary goal is to produce a vivid picture of another era. Any dramatic conflict that develops from this effort is an afterthought. Murrell shows the women rolling strips of bed sheet into bandages and giving fruit to soldiers preparing to ship out. When silk becomes scarce, the women paint “stockings” on their legs, using an eyebrow pencil to create a “seam.” They talk about actor Leslie Howard, who enlisted at the age of 53, and they go shopping for “Durbin turbans,” named after actress Deanna Durbin. By packing the play with such references, Murrell brings to life memories of food rationing, vegetable sandwiches, and unbridled patriotism. But in doing this, he has also reduced his characters to mere vehicles for trucking this information into the script. These five women seem to exist only to represent various aspects of life on the home front.

Catherine (Janet Brooks) is an attractive young bride whose husband is missing in action in Europe. She works in a factory and eventually relieves her loneliness by having an affair with a married man. Janet (Barbara Harris), a few years older, has become active in civil defense and other war-related activities. She hopes her zeal will compensate for the secret shame she feels because her husband, a radio announcer, has refused to enlist. She claims his reading of the “Texaco News Flashes” has been deemed an “essential service.”

Margaret (Susan Koons) is an overweight older woman worried about her two sons. One is a sailor on board the convoy ships being picked off by German submarines; the other is in jail for passing out communist antiwar leaflets. Eve (Karen Bronson) is a young schoolteacher whose husband, though too old to enlist, is quick to criticize her for trying to prevent her students from doing so. And Marta (Ann Slivinski) is the daughter of a German tailor who has been imprisoned because some German newspapers and a picture of the fuhrer were found in his basement. Although Marta, who has been living in Canada since she was nine years old, tries to maintain her father’s business, his shop is egged, a dead dog is left on her front porch, and she is ostracized by those who can’t distinguish a Nazi from a German Canadian.

This play is an exercise for actors. With scarcely any plot to propel it, Waiting for the Parade depends unduly on the ingenuity of the women in the cast. Thoughtful, passionate performances could make it seem powerful and profound. Mediocre performances would expose the superficiality of the story and the cheap gimmicks Murrell employs to achieve his effects. (On two occasions Eve announces, “Prime Minister King has promised there would be no conscription.” Such foreshadowing has all the subtlety of a neon sign.)

The Ides of March production, directed by Marge Uhlarick, falls somewhere in between. Janet Brooks is a spitfire who energizes every scene she is in. At the other extreme, Karen Bronson seems so shy and uncomfortable onstage that her Eve seems to sap the play’s momentum. The other actresses turn in solid, well-crafted performances that bring their characters to life, but without revealing much more than the script dictates.

In its early days, Steppenwolf staged this play, giving actresses such as Rondi Reed, Moira Harris, Laurie Metcalf, and Joan Allen a wonderful opportunity to display their skills. Without such accomplished actresses in the cast, this production is no knockout. But it’s still very nice.