By: Sean Byrne
Leaving a husband, boyfriend, or daughter and joining the Women Air Force Service Pilots may not be the wisest decision, but it does make for a heart-wrenching story filled with “bigger lives than we’ve been living.”
Hollins University’s new play Decision Height, by Meredith Dayna Levey, grants the audience a sneak peak at the lives of six of these women; each with a rich backstory and passionate reason for joining. Although poised for takeoff, the show itself hits some turbulence when the captain and air-traffic control don’t coordinate and inconsistencies abound.
The script, although promising, isn’t the best method of conveying the show’s story. The playwright favors the method of narrating three to four stories at once; giving actors lines one by one in rotation, accented, of course, by spotlights. But to the audience, it’s confusing and often leaves us playing catch-up to what happened in the previous story.
Director Ernest Zulia seems to have tried his best to work through the script’s jumpy scenes with march-like dance breaks to the cadence of “Yankee Doodle Dandy;” but often overrode the emotional depth that weighs on each scene. It is this decision that creates a travesty for the audience: when Edith, played by Susanna Young, receives news that her brother has been killed during a top-secret mission I could feel her heart breaking and her mind actively searching for some excuse as to why it could not be true. Four seconds later though, my connection to the character was crushed underfoot as the ensemble stampeded on with another rendition of “Yankee Doodle.”
What kept me rolling my eyes in defeat though, was the design that went beyond normal stage limits. In the first scene it was established that water would be signified by (largely unsynchronized) projections and sound, yet in the subsequent scene neither were present. Alternatively, flying a plane first required that one actress stand behind another and both move in the same direction, yet in a much more striking and visually gripping scene it required the actress to stand on a ladder, behind a projection of the plane, wandering clouds and fly beautifully into the sunset.
Luckily, “The Six” as they’re called, saved the show with brilliant ensemble acting. It was their connection to each other and their story that kept me engaged and invested with the show. Of special note were Edith, whom I mentioned above, and Norma Jean, played by Emma Sperka, for creating strangers I genuinely cared about. The comic moments by the entire ensemble had me laughing, and admittedly clapping, at moments that were “better than church,” as Norma Jean claimed.
So our flight experienced turbulence – that’s to be expected. But Decision Height has a great story. I encourage it to “go forth here, with your silver wings,” get the machine in working order and take-off.