Wrens, Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, at Footsteps Theatre. Great acting requires a great moral dilemma the way an Indy car needs high-octane fuel. Playwright Anne McGravie, with the help of directors Karen Kessler and Scott M. Verissimo, eventually pushes Rivendell’s stellar seven-person cast to the brink of a moral chasm and into overdrive. But it takes an entire act to get her engine started. Her semiautobiographical Wrens is set on the eve of VE day in an unassuming barracks of the Women’s Royal Naval Service. The Wrens, unappreciated and patronized by male officers, fear that peacetime will return them to positions of uselessness, their patriotic sacrifices belittled or overlooked. But in the first act, as the women bicker and confess, they simply describe situations, repeatedly explaining the playwright’s points. They seem more like assembled panelists than dramatic characters.

McGravie starts writing drama instead of conversations, however, in the second act, when she forces the Wrens into an ethical dilemma. Dawn is pregnant, raped by an officer. Since she’s unmarried, her pregnancy can get her kicked out of the service; if her fellow Wrens don’t report her condition, they may get sent to the brig. When Dawn returns to base feverish and hemorrhaging after an illegal abortion, the stakes increase tenfold. At last McGravie dramatizes the issues discussed in the first act; if these women stand up for a fallen comrade–the model of male heroism–they’ll become criminals. Like the great Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol, McGravie unflinchingly portrays the extremes of human dignity and ignominy in a world of impossible choices. –Justin Hayford