As citizens of a contemporary society dealing with all of the problems of living in a modern age oversaturated with information, we are absolutely crippled by the weight of injustice in the world. It is appallingly easy to do nothing in the face of injustice. Get a group of the most clever people of an era together in one place and one would hope that it would be strikingly easy for them to set aside their differences, recognize injustice and do something about it. It’s not as easy as that, though...a problem which is explored at length in Steven Carl Mccasland’s Little Wars--a drama about a meeting between Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein and Agatha Christie in France in 1940. Bryce Lord directs a production of the drama for the Milwaukee Entertainment Group which is staged this month in the Brumder Mansion.
Maggie Wirth plays a very obstinate and intellectually dominant novelist Gertrude Stein. The play is set in Stein’s home in Paris. As Stein’s partner Alice B. Toklas, Donna Daniels is the sweet hostess balancing out Stein’s bluntness. As the play opens, Stein and Toklas are prepared to receive guests. They are quite unprepared for the number of guests they are about to receive or the drama that is to ensue when they arrive.
Ruth Arnell plays the first to arrive: the American psychiatrist Muriel Gardiner. She’s early. She’s meeting Stein and Toklas on rather important business. Arnell playsthe mysteriousness of Gardiner as something of an enigma in plain sight. Delicate nuances wash over Arnell’s performance as each of the other guests arrive and begin to introduce themselves. Arnell is stirringly heroic as the social conscience of the ensemble. She’s an unknown among literary legends, but her ideals prove her to be a towering figure in her own right.
Cara Johnston cuts a dazzlingly shadowy figure as Dorothy Parker. Johnston plays the acclaimed screenwriter as a ceaselessly aggressive intellect that seems to be constantly pushing to the center of the stage, even when she’s firmly planted in a chair as far back as the stage will allow.
Carrie Gray is inspiringly poised as playwright Lillian Hellman. There’s a crips precision about Gray as she constructs a very actively organic emotional resonance. In order to have achieved the level of success she had, Hellman had to be quite deft with the scalpel of interpersonal politics. Mccasland gives Hellman some of the most complicated internal dynamics in the ensemble. Gray handles these dizzying dynamics with tenaciously tame alacrity.
Victoria Hudziak is handed a challenge of an entirely different kind in playing Agatha Christie. Mccasland gives Christie a Sherlock Holmesian attention to detail that is paired with a clever tactical mind that keeps her from being completely open about all she knows. The challenge here is to play a character who is only pretending not to know A LOT more than she actually knows about a situation. Hudziak handles the intricate layering of Christie’s tactical mind quite well.
Molly Corkins is achingly strong in silent stillness as Stein and Toklas’ domestic aid Bernadette. Her resillience is revealed slowly from around the edges of the plot. As Bernadette, Corkins plays to another end of the same heroism that Arnell is conjuring as Muriel Gardiner. Corkins stands resolutely around the margins of the stage without over-rendering the heroic fortitude of the character, which is quite an accomplishment given the true nature of what she’s portraying.
It’s a really, really impressive cast from a variety of different backgrounds all coming together to play a group of people from a variety of different backgrounds. Rarely does an ensemble feel this well balanced on this many levels. It’s a deeply engaging dramatic experience that comes across as an inspiration to those of us still struggling to find some way out to do something other than injustice in an increasingly bleak world.
Milwaukee Entertainment Group’s production of Little Wars runs through April 6th at the Brumder Mansion on 3046 West Wisconsin Avenue. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Entertainment Group online.