By Alec Clayton
Congratulations to local writers Tamara Keeton and Katherine Kelly for undertaking the arduous task of researching the true story of the heroic female pilots of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron during World War II and adapting it for the stage, and to cast, crew and director Sky Myers for bringing it to life at Olympia Little Theatre.
The Originals is based on interviews, letters and articles about the 28 women of the WAFS, the first women to ever pilot U.S. Army Air Corps airplanes. They would open the door for female pilots to come.
The play focuses on a handful of these courageous women and the prejudice, betrayal, sabotage and personal loss they had to endure to win personal battles — especially Nancy Batson (Amanda Robinson), Cornelia Fort (Talia Carver), Barbara “BJ” Erickson of Seattle (Andrea Gordon), hotshot and audacious ex-barnstormer Evelyn “Sharpie” Sharp (Hilary Lucero) and Teresa “Jamesy” James (Riley O’Neill). Another pivotal role is that of Nancy Love (Meg Long), the army officer who convinced General Arnold to form the group. Love selected, encouraged and trained the women of the new U.S. Army Air Corps — each of whom already had vastly more flying hours and miles than many male pilots, but were generally regarded as unqualified because of their gender.
The play starts with BJ talking to her mother, Vera, played with compassion, fear and love for her daughter by Jennifer Valera, theater teacher at Aspire Performing Arts Academy in Lacey. This signals BJ’s importance, as she’s the only character shown in a family setting prior to joining the WAFS. Gordon’s depiction of BJ is nuanced. She comes across as sympathetic and determined, a no-nonsense leader.
Early in their training, two women crash-land their airplanes while attempting to land on a muddy landing strip. Later, another is killed in a crash caused by a couple of hotshot male pilots. Then “Sharpie,” the most accomplished of the pilots, takes off her shirt in the cockpit and flies wearing only the halter top of a two-piece bathing suit above her waist. She’s reported as flying naked.
These instances nearly turn upper military brass against the program before its first missions ferrying fighter pilots to duty stations. Also threatening to shut them down is commentator Drew Pearson (Keith Eisner), who repeatedly and maliciously berates the entire program as “petticoat pilots” on the air. Pearson was known as a liberal commentator who attacked such conservative politicians as Joseph McCarthy and Ronald Reason while displaying hatred of women. Eisner’s performance as Pearson is outstanding.
The play is presented in short scenes on a set constructed of ammunition crates, with a couple of desks shuffled between settings —a distraction for some, but not irritating to this reviewer. Surprisingly, many scenes consist of mimed action and dancing to swing-era music, with excellent choreography by Mel Bilodeau.
The Originals is an important story that was almost lost to history. The play runs approximately two and a half hours, including a 15-minute intermission. Masks and proof of vaccination are required for admission.
The featured lobby art is by Pug Bujeaud, an actor and director who began creating visual art less than a year ago. Her work has looked professional from her very first picture.
7:25 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 1:55 p.m. Sundays through May 8;
7:25 p.m. Thursday, May 5
Olympia Little Theatre,
1925 Miller Ave. NE, Olympia