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Wartime women struggle in ‘Wrens’

AmandPowell (from left) Meg Warner Mary Cross RebeccSpence Ashley Neal 'Wrens' by Rivendell Theatre Ensemble.

Amanda Powell (from left), Meg Warner, Mary Cross, Rebecca Spence and Ashley Neal in "Wrens" by Rivendell Theatre Ensemble.

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When: Through Oct. 13

Where: Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge

Tickets: $30

Info: (773) 334-7728;

Updated: October 14, 2012 12:52PM

It was 16 years ago that Rivendell Theatre first mounted “Wrens,” a beguiling semi-autobiographical play by the Edinburgh-bred Anne McGravie — then a still girlish writer of 70 — who was recalling her experiences during World War II when she served as a a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service or WREN.

Now, as part of its “season of reinvention” at its lovely new Edgewater home, Rivendell has remounted “Wrens” with its original director, Karen Kessler, in charge of a whole new cast of actresses. As for McGravie, 86, she is not only about to have several other plays produced in Chicago this season, but she is awaiting the e-publishing of her first novel, Dancing on Ashes.

“Wrens” soars as high the second time around as it did the first. And in some ways it has taken on new meaning as an increasing number of women in THIS country have joined the military, and as the battle over abortion just refuses to go away.

The time is May 6 and 7, 1945, just as the Germans are about to surrender, and the war in Europe is about to end. The place is a naval station on a remote island off the north coast of Scotland, where seven women share a cramped barracks “cabin” (the richly atmospheric set is by Joanna Iwanicka) that has no privacy, little heat or hot water, blackout shades continually pulled down, and metal shutters consistently rapped on by a lonely, half-crazed local girl.

The seven women, of different backgrounds, ages, religions and marital status, are from England, Scotland and Wales (with accents to match), and to be sure they can and do get on each other’s last nerves. They form a dysfunctional family of sorts, but they are all united in some way or another by the unique sense of freedom and independence they’ve experienced in their wartime work. Going “home” will not be easy. As one of them exclaims, “Nothing’s ever going to be the same.”

Jenny [Rebecca Spence], is the contained, quietly maternal, loyally married woman who fears her husband might not want to return to the status quo. Gwyneth [Mary Cross], is the fiery Welsh girl who has done a bit of sexual exploration with a married man who has no intention of leaving his wife.

Doris (Meg Warner), is the writer and “socialist” whose young husband has been killed in the war, and who dreads having to return home to live with her parents. Cynthia (Jodi Kingsley), “the Tory” from a wealthy family — with a soft spot for injured mice — fears her husband wants to make the Navy, rather than banking, his career. As for the high-spirited Meg (Amanda Powell), just 17, she is the newest member of the group. Brought up in a convent orphanage, she is having the time of her life, and is almost sorry the war is coming to an end.

And then there is Dawn (Ashley Neal), the scrawny, unhappy girl who happens to be an excellent auto mechanic. She, too, has been exploring a newfound sexual freedom, but SHE gets pregnant, as does Chelsea (Katrina Kuntz), a more mature and reserved woman. And in this time, this place and this situation, there is no good choice to be made. Neither the WRENS, nor society at large, will accept an out-of-wedlock baby. And abortions are not only illegal, but potentially fatal.

The individual performances are sharp and distinctive, but it is the ensemble esprit that is of the essence here. And McGravie’s beautifully observed play, with its marvelous feminist rumblings, is a gem.

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