Part I: In the world of “Night Witches” (originally by Alicia Crosby, Vanita Kalra, Riva Rubenoff and Sara Vanasse (along with additional contributions from the cast of this production at Stephens College)), war is hell in more ways than one. Brave and patriotic women fight to be able to serve their country as the fighting in World War II begins to reach it’s boiling point. But, cultural sexism in their homeland of Mother Russia threatens to keep them grounded for the war. Unfortunately for their detractors as well as the German military forces, these pilots prove that they can cause a little hell if given the opportunity.
13 actors make up the cast for Stephens College’s production of “Night Witches.” However, since 21 unique roles are called for in the show, certain actors are called upon to take on numerous roles in the performance. This was no problem for the Stephens College performers as they were able to convincingly portray multiple roles with a high degree of verisimilitude. One actor who was able to do so particularly well was Taneal Williams, who played Mother as well as Raskova, the military commander for the pilots. Mother and Young Anna (Hannah Elliott) are the first characters that the audience sees onstage after a prolonged moment of darkness and thunder to begin the show. Mother and Young Anna appear in a bed together wearing night gowns as Mother tries to calm Young Anna down during the crashing thunder of the night. Williams is able to coddle and protect Young Anna in a very loving and nurturing kind of way as she tells a story of the “Seven Sisters” star constellation. Later in the show, Williams returns to rile up the troops and instill in them the importance of their duties as Commander Raskova. Clad in a brown general’s hat with a brown military uniform and combat boots, Raskova appears as a practical opposite of the way Williams portrayed Mother earlier in the performance. Raskova’s straight posture, booming projectile voice and stern icy stare resonates power and control even in the furthest seats in the theatre. In one instance, Vera (Madilynn Mansur) and Anna (Delainey Phillips) try to explain to Raskova that the engine in Anna’s plane is malfunctioning and won’t be fit for take-off just yet. With charging German forces approaching, Raskova declares with conviction that no plane will be left for the enemy to secure and that Anna needs to figure out her situation fast. The message is made loud and clear to Vera and Anna as Raskova departs off-stage in a soldier’s gait.
War may be a very brutal, tiring and at times delicate subject to handle within a performance. But with war comes the human element and spirit: Comradery, fighting for someone you love back home, persevering in even the darkest of conditions and situations. One actor whose performance offered many levels of human spirit and emotion was Dalton Mobley, who played Peter and a German soldier seen later in the show. The audience is first introduced to Peter and Vera in the second scene of the performance, showcasing their first meeting and then ensuing relationship before Peter is called off to fight in the war. During their meeting, Peter and Vera speak sparingly as their movements and motions act as an interpretive dance to describe their encounter (which is helped considerably by Elliott and Catera Combs, who act as Vera and Peter’s Mimuer’s respectively to help the scene flow). Before he opens his mouth and finally speaks for the first time in the scene, Peter, sitting cross-legged immediately beside Vera, looks flustered and anxious. His eyes dart back and forth and his outstretched hand moves closer to Vera as his face shows his mind appearing to be going a million miles per hour. His mouth opens because he wants to say something to her, but he quickly traps it shut without any words escaping. In this sequence, Mobley is able to convincingly portray Peter as being smitten with Vera after just a few moments on stage together. Later in the performance, the close dynamic between Vera and Peter is brought to an abrupt and rather sad halt after Vera receives a letter. The letter details Peter’s death by the hands of German soldiers in the line of battle, which tears up Vera as she throws down the letter, overcome with sadness and disgust. As Vera reads the letter silently to herself in front of the stage near stage left, Peter is seen far behind her near stage right, acting out the contents of the letter for the audience to see. Peter is seen attacked, shot and beaten to a point where he can only crawl forward. His motion forward moves him from his original spot near stage right to the middle of the center of the stage, signifying his resistance to the attacks and persistence to carry on. Unfortunately, he is overcome by German troops and offers a courageous stand, back on two feet, before meeting a final fatal shot and dropping dead on the stage. In this heart-wrenching and tense moment, Mobley is able to fight to the very end in a convincing fashion.
Part II: The actors “take to the skies” themselves to convincingly demonstrate a bombing run during the performance. In front of a sky blue backdrop aided by convincing slide whistle sound effects off-stage, each pilot choreographs her bombing run in cyclical circular motion with the others. One takes the lead in front of the other four, slowly crouching in place while offering a personal war cry before rotating back in formation as her target is decimated.