Female Transport, by Steve Gooch, is not much of a play, but its future on university stages is assured because it provides what every theater department needs: strong roles for women. The talented ensemble cast of Webster University Conservatory of Theatre Arts students, both male and female, meets the opportunity with a strong production under the assured hand of director Doug Finlayson, the head of the Conservatory's directing program.
Female Transport concerns a shipload of women prisoners on a six-month journey from London to a penal colony in Sydney, Australia, in 1807. The action, or lack of it, centers on one cell deep in the bowels of the boat, the six prisoners there and the men in charge of them. It sounds like a 19th-century version of a women-behind-bars B-movie, and, in truth, it uses all the conventions of that genre: the horny inmate, the lesbian, the sadistic jailer, the stir-crazy psycho, the innocent young guard who becomes hardened by his job. Fortunately, Gooch acknowledges, then subverts, these clichés, turning them into complex characters that, as brought to life by the talented cast, transcend type.
The actresses plays characters their own age, which helps us appreciate even more their desperation and brutality. These young women have already seen it all, stolen it all and sold it all on the mean streets of London. They're introduced in a blur of ranting, cursing and insulting, and their language and toughness are earned, not put on for self-defense. (The university warns that the language may not be for everyone). Young guard Tommy (Joey Dudding) notes, "They all seem the same."
But as the seasoned Sergeant (Brian Pracht) points out, the journey (and the play itself) will eventually reveal who's whom: "Character shows." It's the key line of the play, which is about the choices that define our character (and lack of it), responsibility, the roles people take on in order to survive and what's real underneath when the roles are shed. The women gradually turn to each other to build something like a community.
The ensemble uses the material to show off what it's learned in the way of accents (some more consistent than others), stage combat (well choreographed by Kim Bozark) and, most impressively, acting chops. Lucy Angell is very good as Winnie, who takes on the job of matron; Alexis Carty-Campbell plays Madge, the oldest of the group, with appropriate world-weariness; Jillian Jakub is fine as the wild-eyed, haunted Pitty; and Mika Porro as Sarah shows that tenderness can thrive in the worst of conditions. Melissa Rentrop as the fiery Charlotte and Jessica Podewell as the rebellious Nance stand out slightly from the ensemble, and not only because their characters are better written; these two actresses demand our attention through the sheer force of their concentration, never leaving the scene for an instant. Ben Knox is excellent as the ship's morally upright doctor, who eventually shows that he, too, has his price, and Kevin Young manages to make us at least understand, if not sympathize with, the corrupt captain.
Unfortunately, character is all this play is about. Although the scenes are well written and provide lots to work with, they don't really go anywhere; they just accumulate. The only structure comes from the journey itself. It's the personal interaction that moves the play forward, and Finlayson doesn't waste a beat, making sure everyone's committed to the here-and-now of every moment of the play. His elegant composition and movement give lots of variety to the single setting. Only the final tableau seemed a bit too forced and upbeat. The triumph of the spirit, as represented by the Sydney sun showering down on the women, is fine, but they're still going off to a penal colony, after all.
The set is designed by student Jay Heiserman, who manages to express both the confinement of the cell and the larger world of the ship. The rain effect during a storm at sea is simple but impressive; to answer the person sitting behind me, yes, that was real water.
The worst part of watching this show is the realization that most of this young talent will leave town immediately after they graduate. Wouldn't it be wonderful if there were enough professional acting work in St. Louis to keep them here?