Victory Garden’s production of Court-Martial at Fort Devens is an examination of three young African American women serving in the Women’s Army Corp during World War II and their struggle to triumph over the destructive toll of overt racism and unchecked institutional power.
Faced with obeying orders, but also enduring the humiliation of an unwarranted demotion and the denigrating epithets of an overtly racist colonel, the women go on strike. For this they are court-martialed and face the death penalty.
A reality-based story about race relations during wartime seems a subject that promises to be a dramatic powder keg. Yet, the main shortcoming of this production is a distinct lack of dramatic tension and a barrel full of unremarkable dialogue. If a well-plotted play tracks the rise and fall of a normal EKG, this script has flatlined.
The center point of the play is the court-martial or trial of the women, and throughout it you never feel as if the women are in jeopardy. At times, playwright Jeffrey Sweet tries to manufacture drama or inject morality with overt in your face brimstone sermons and defense attorney soliloquies, but these have as much subtlety as the lead singer of a death metal band.
Even the characterization of the female privates is standard issue. There’s the nerdy but earnest country bumpkin Gertrude (Lili-Anne Brown), the idealistic Virgina Boyd (Ericka Ratcliff), and the intrepid, but not too bright, beautiful sidekick Johnnie Mae (Samantha D. Tanner).
Phillip Edward Van Lear turns in a fine performance by injecting a junkyard dog quality as the scrappy defense attorney for the women. Velma Austin deploys a convincing conflicted performance as Tenola Stoney, the women’s superior officer, an African American woman caught between duty to the army and to her race.
The set design, a simple arched metal frame which channels the structure of a Quonset hut achieves what Sweet’s script does not: a powerful idea with a subtle touch.
Court Martial at Fort Devens runs through March 11th at the Biograph Theatre located at 2433 N. Lincoln. Performances are Tues-Thurs at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturday 5 and 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m.. You can purchase tickets at www.victorygardens.org, or call 773-871-3000.
This article first appeared on centerstagechicago.com