It’s 1942 Long Beach. While most of the men are in Europe fighting in World War II, the women are holding down the home front while drumming up war rations and knitting socks for their men. One of these women is also running the local theatre in lieu of her husband, staging a mostly male Shakespeare play with a cast of mostly women—some of whom have never even acted before. What could go wrong?
Such is the premise of International City Theatre’s (ICT) delightful rendition of George Brant’s 2018 play “Into the Breeches!” Ably directed by Brian Shnipper and featuring a talented and invested cast and crew, the play elicits chuckles at the apparent absurdity of the endeavor but also wonder at what can happen when humans come together against the odds to create something greater than themselves.
For these women, the kind of chutzpa it takes to mount their play requires navigating difficult wartime emotions, demeaning patriarchal feedback, societally enforced gender roles and an ingrained need to apologize—in verse. Willing as they are to face down racial and sexual identity barriers as well makes their attempt that much more “progressive” and shows the courage of their hearts.
Maggie Dalton (Meghan Andrews) is the unlikely heroine behind the scenes of the playhouse’s new production. Filling in for her absent husband’s theatre direction (or “parroting,” as one character calls it), Maggie wants to continue forward with his vision of staging “The Henriad”—Shakespeare’s historical Henry plays set during war—as a fitting tribute to the troops.
Andrews anchors this production, naturally capturing her character’s tentativeness that belies innate strength and ingenuity, and also her warmth toward the troupe she must learn to lead. From beginning to end—including a surprisingly moving final moment—Andrews imbues Maggie with tenacity and tender feeling.
To carry off her plan, Maggie must first convince seasoned actress Celeste (a strong and lithe Leslie Stevens)—a self-assured diva accustomed to playing such Shakespearean ingenues as Juliet—to perform as a man, Prince Henry. Eventually, Maggie must also convince Celeste to play not the young prince, but his father, the aged king, which obviously doesn’t go over well.
And then there’s Ellsworth Snow (a well-cast Nicholas Hormann), gruff chairman of the theatre board of directors, who is having none of Maggie’s claptrap. Fortunately, Maggie finds it relatively easy (after a martini) to persuade Ellsworth’s beloved wife Winifred (Holly Jeanne, equally funny in ICT’s “Lend Me a Tenor” last year), to return to the stage after “rounding out the cast” in a production from her youth.
Fortunately as well, newlywed June (Brooke Olivia Gatto) and young mother Grace (Emilie Doering) answer the theatre’s call for auditions, both readily accepted by an increasingly desperate Maggie. The sprightly Gatto consistently captures June’s sparkly, youthful energy while Doering has a grounded stage presence, delivering not only her regular lines but her Shakespearian lines with aplomb.
Further breaking boundaries for the time, male stage manager Stuart (Lee James), who was denied entry into the army for being “swishy,” and Black seamstress Ida (Sydney A. Mason), whose blood donation was declined due to her race, soon join Maggie’s cast as well.
While the first act feels just a tad uneven as characters find their way into Maggie’s play—and a later scene of Maggie coming to Celeste’s house to woo the actress falls a bit flat—“Into the Breeches!” fully blossoms in both humor and meaning post-intermission.
The women finally master walking like men with the use of dangling prosthetics, Winifred hilariously channels Groucho Marx to embody her role and Ida designs costumes that take the women’s play to whole other level, escalating “Into the Breeches!” to a moving crescendo by the end.
With an immersive stage set designed by Tim Mueller, complete with wooden floors and rafters, lovely period costumes by Kimberly DeShazo and hair by Anthony Gagliardi, “Into the Breeches!” is a visual pleasure as well. Lovingly produced by ICT, this amusing and heartwarming gem of a play (given a local Long Beach accent) is not to be missed.
International City Theatre’s “Into the Breeches!” continues through June 25 at the Beverly O’Neill Theater, 330 E. Seaside Way, Long Beach, with shows Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $49 to $52 and can be purchased by calling (562) 436-4610 or visiting ICTLongBeach.org. Run time is 2 hours plus intermission.