Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Policies included height and weight limits for women with routine weight check-ins and probation or dismissal for exceeding the limit; women's exclusion from work as pursers, a position with comparable responsibility but higher pay; prohibition against marriage; requirements to "retire" at an early age (at Northwest the age was 32); prohibition against wearing eyeglasses; and lodging women in double rooms on overnight layovers while providing men with private rooms. The company work manual stated that when a male flight attendant was on board he would always be in charge, regardless of his seniority.
Mary Pat Laffey worked for Minnesota hometown Northwest Orient Airlines (they dropped the "Orient" in the 1980s). Her ire at the injustices against herself and other female employees was given ammunition with passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbade discrimination in employment on the basis of race, national origin, religion or sex. In 1965, Laffey took her case to the newly established U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, making Northwest stewardesses one of the first groups of women to do so. The commission supported her claims but lacked enforcement powers. It took multiple class-action lawsuits, with every victory for the stewardesses appealed by Northwest. The settlement, which included back wages and reinstatement of positions for women who had been adversely affected, was not resolved until 1984.
Stewardess! presents this great, inspiring, and still-relevant story as a satire, delivering a rich trove of historical content while making fun both of the misogyny of male passengers, co-workers, and corporate executives, and of the decades of social unrest and change that provide the context for the saga. The play, which begins in very stylized manner at the end of the story and then travels back in time, is rather fragmented in form at the cost of emotional engagement with the characters and narrative. In return, the form allows for multiple storytelling tracks. One track documents Laffey's actual encounters with Equal Opportunity officers, labor rights attorneys, and the union in which she rose to the electedbut unpaidposition of Master Executive Chairman. Another track whips up her fictionalized co-workers. There are two fellow stewardesses, Fran and Primmie, whose friendship spans the decades, and two pursers, Mike, whose repugnant sexism fuels Laffey's resolve, and Robert, who becomes her ally. From time to time, Laffey seeks guidance from an unnamed voice on high, adding another dimension to the plotting.
The third track provides the social context, reminding us that while Laffey's efforts were heroic they were not done in a vacuum. Gloria Steinem is on hand, evolving from newbie journalist for Esquire Magazine to strident feminist who, with fellow feminist and civil rights advocate Dorothy Pitman Hughes, co-launches Ms. Magazine. Here's Phyllis Schlafly, the staunch anti-feminist crusading against change to the traditional status of women. We meet Lorraine Wright, first African-American stewardess at Northwest, hired after she was originally rejected by suing under the same 1964 Civil Rights Act. The arch villain of the piece is Donald Nyrop, who was the president of Northwest for the entirety of Laffey's campaign, and who was notorious for cost-saving measures and anti-union stance. For good measure, we have a civil rights march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the war in Vietnam (granted, here there is actually a connection to Laffey's biography), and the failed campaign for an Equal Rights Amendment. To further ensure we track the passage of time, between some scenes dance-breaks bring out the entire cast, moving and grooving to the beat of the decade, from the smooth "Fly Me to the Moon" to rock, soul, and discowith suitcases sometimes serving as whimsical dance partners.
These back and forth switches from straight narrative to documentary style to legal history to send-up of changing times hold our interest, but often create the feeling of a series of sketches rather than a unified play. The heart of the story becomes encumbered by all the other baggage on stage so that, while we deeply admire Laffey's tenacity and accomplishments, I did not feel an emotional connection to her ordeal. It's a history lesson as entertainment, a "Schoolhouse Rock!" for grown-ups.
Thankfully, director Noël Raymond deftly keeps the tracks and differing tones imbedded in Stewardess! moving smoothly without ever a missed beat, guiding us scene by scene to draw the meaning and the humor from each. The many exits and entrances are staged with impressive dexterity, and the entire production feels well orchestrated and swiftly paced.
The play is enacted by a top-notch cast who inject life into a host of characters. Tracey Maloney could not be more perfect as Mary Pat Laffey. She conveys fierce determination based on reason and an innate sense of fairness, while suffering along the way from self-doubts about her ability to hang on till the end and the toll her commitment to the long campaign takes on her personal life.
The other actors all play multiple roles, rapidly switching on and off. Among the more notable characters, Jamila Anderson brings gravitas to Lorraine Wright, a spirited belief in change to Dorothy Pittman Hughes, and hard-earned wisdom as an elder looking on when Dr. King speaks. John Catron excels as the two pursers with opposing natures, Mike and Robert, and makes a fine toady to Donald Nyrop. Kimberly Rose Richardson brings whole life to the naïve stewardess Primmie and to Gloria Steinem who grows into a force in the course of the evening. Adam Whisner plays dastardly Donald Nyrop to the hilt. Elise Langer brings fine comic chops to Phyllis Schlafly, weight-challenged stewardess Fran, and Nyrop's put-upon secretary, Betty.
The dominant feature on the set is a large red N, the logo of Northwest Airlines, emblazoned on the floor. A pair of raised platforms, airport serving carts wedged beneath a pair of stairwells, and suitcases which, upended, make fine airplane sets, are all inventively put to use. The costumes are based on airline employee uniforms, varying slightly to depict different characters. Sound and lighting work well to create the effect of airline travel and the hubbub noise of an airport.
Mary Pat Laffey was indefatigable in her efforts. I have no doubt that many others in her union stood with her and enabled the dramatic, historic changes they fought for to take hold, but this is her story, with an underlying message that says one determined person can make a difference. The history is important, and the progress made ought never be taken for granted; the power of one resilient individual is inspiring. With its strong performances and dynamic staging, Stewardess! is well worth our attention. It may not be a fully well-crafted play, but it delivers a terrific story.
Stewardess!, through March 3, 2019, at History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Adults: $30.00 - $42.00; Seniors (age 60 and up): $27.00 - $37.00; Adults under age 30: $30.00; Students 5 - 18: $15.00. For tickets call 651-292-4323 or go to historytheatre.com.
Playwright: Kira Obolensky; Director: Noël Raymond; Scenic Design: Joseph Stanley; Video Design: Kathy Maxwell; Costume Design: Amber Brown; Lighting Design: Mike Wangen; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Properties Designer: Abbee Warmboe and Kirby Moore; Movement Director: Heidi Batz Rogers; Technical Director: Gunther Gullickson; Production Stage Manager: Wayne Hendricks; Assistant Stage Manager: Haley Walsh; Assistant Director: Michaela Johnson.
Cast: Jamila Anderson (Lorraine Wright/Dorothy Pitman Hughes/ensemble), John Catron (Mike Purser/Robert Ripley/ensemble), Elise Langer (Fran Johnson/Phyllis Schlafly/ensemble), Tracey Maloney (Mary Pat Laffey), Kimberly Rose Richardson (Gloria Steinem/Primmie Frost/ensemble), Adam Whisner (Donald Nyrop/Neil/ensemble).