Written, directed, and co-designed by and starring women, the 2016 Women’s Theatre Festival’s presentation of Decision Height is a full-length play that follows a group of six trainees in the Women Airforce Service Pilots program during World War II. These “WASPs” must survive the trials of being not only technicians and pilots, but also women in wartime. We also catch a glimpse into the world of the squad’s den mother, another trainee in a nearby squad, and the supervising officer of the group.
Decision Height is a well-constructed and well-respected play, authored by Meredith Dayna Levy, who won the 2013 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival New Play Award. We are offered a glimpse into a subset of American women that few know about — I certainly did not. While most, if not all, of the characters are pure fiction, their basis is firmly rooted in reality. If you had told me that this play was based entirely on actual events, I would not have questioned you. A high-school production is scheduled for next February in Virginia. More schools should certainly be studying and performing this play, especially given the limited “meaty” roles afforded female actors.
First-time director Emily Rose White has assembled a masterful troupe of actresses — a real dream cast. White’s direction is smooth, specific, and rhythmic. The play flows from scene to scene, with limited transition time, and many opportunities for conceptual design. “Less is more” is certainly White’s mantra in this piece, and it is extremely effective. With six army cots and the edge of a circular campus fountain as the only set pieces, we are permitted to focus on the real meat of this story — the exchange of dialogue between a group of extraordinary women.
This Band of Sisters is led by Katy Werlin’s Virginia, who narrates the piece and provides the audience with an honest and touching look into the world of the play. Werlin’s work is subtle and poignant. Playwright Meredith Dayna Levy gives the play’s real fire to the rough-and-tumble Eddie, portrayed with enormous fortitude and humor by Tara Nicole Williams. Williams is a powerhouse in the play and delivers one of its strongest performances.
Libby Rounds consummately portrays Norma Jean, the leader of the sisterhood. Rounds delivers a complex, passionate woman whom the audience loves, even if many other characters do not. An elegant Maeghan Suzik tackles the tenacious Rosalie with such grace that one can hardly see her as a successful pilot, until she proves herself otherwise.
Kelly McDaniel is an intelligent and sensitive Alice, displaying her character’s hesitations with perfect emotional pitch. Carol, a.k.a. “Shrimp,” is played by the ever-energetic Kimmy Fiorentino, who balances Carol’s immaturity and earnestness with passion and charm.
Laura Griffin delivers an outstanding performance as Ziggie Lewis, commander of the troupe. Griffin delivers her lines with such vigor that one cannot help but want to jump in line. However, a gentler, nurturing Ziggie appears at times, prompting the audience to love her as much as respect her. It is one of the production’s most commanding performances.
The quirky and outcast Mildred is played by Pimpila Violette. She communicates Mildred’s anxiety and determination with very few lines, proving that a fully formed character can be communicated nonverbally, if you have an actress with instincts as strong as Violette’s. Karen Morgan Williams portrays den mother Mrs. Deaton with authority and strength.
Director Emily Rose White also served as costume designer for the piece. The jumpsuits, while not perfectly historically accurate, ground the piece firmly in its time and place (Texas, the winter of 1943). The jumpsuits are appropriately ill-fitted to the actresses, which the characters discuss; but each actress makes her costume unique through differences in hairstyle, belt position, and the positioning of her red turban. The uniform assigned to Ziggie (Laura Griffin) is particularly apropos. You know who she is before she opens her mouth: The Boss.
The ArtsCenter in Carrboro is nearly impossible to light well. There are very few lighting instruments on the overhead grid, which may work if the entirety of your performance occurs on the far-away raised stage. However, 80 percent of this play was staged, quite effectively, in the orchestra pit area, which represented the barracks.
Lighting designer Tyson H. Jones is forced to ration his lighting like Depression-era butter, trying to cover two spaces at once. He manages to be very successful given the limits of the space and should be applauded for taking on what must have been a nearly impossible task. There are a number of moments when actresses are not well-lit, but the majority of the play is perfectly visible and no important moments were lost.
Decision Height is beautifully written, expertly acted, and well directed. It is a must-see for fans of American history, women’s history, and just overall great theater.
The play is in the PG zone for some intense emotional moments. I highly recommend you bring your middle schoolers and high schoolers, especially the young ladies.
SECOND OPINION: Aug. 10th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/decision-height/Event?oid=5054802.
Women’s Theatre Festival presents DECISION HEIGHT at 8 p.m. Aug. 18-20 and 3 p.m. Aug. 21 in the Earl and Rhoda Wynn Theater at The ArtsCenter, 300-G E. Main St., Carrboro, North Carolina 27510.
BOX OFFICE: 919-929-2787, ext. 204, or https://artscenterlive.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0S36000001QMfIEAW.
SHOW: https://www.facebook.com/events/1083834915043307/ and http://artscenterlive.org/events/decision-height-presented-womens-theatre-festival-3/.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FNAEaD-w5c.
SPOTLIGHT FEATURE: http://www.womenstheatrefestival.com/.
2016 FESTIVAL LINEUP: http://www.womenstheatrefestival.com/#!schedule/trwge.
PRESENTER: http://www.womenstheatrefestival.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/groups/1081089605266087/.
WTF BLOG: http://www.womenstheatrefestival.com/#!blog-1/ervzy.
VENUE: http://www.artscenterlive.org/, https://www.facebook.com/artscenterlive, and https://twitter.com/ArtsCenterlive.
Decision Height (2013 play): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/44499/decision-height (Samuel French, Inc.).
Meredith Dayna Levy (Roanoke, VA playwright): https://www.dramatistsguild.com/memberdirectory/getmembership.aspx?cid=38228 (Dramatists Guild bio), https://newplayexchange.org/users/3754/meredith-dayna-levy (New Play Exchange bio), and https://twitter.com/@meredith_dayna (Twitter page).
Emily Rose White (Raleigh, NC director): https://bewritewithyou.wordpress.com/ (her blog), https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002376854236 (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/emilyirisblack (Twitter page).
Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing on it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.