Riveting Riveters: Purple Rose’s “Willow Run” tells the story of four strong women


Purple Rose Theatre's Willow Run

Southeast Michigan was in the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt “the Arsenal of Democracy” as the area’s auto manufacturers moved from making cars to making planes, tanks, jeeps, and other machinery needed to fight the Axis in World War II.

The heart and soul of that arsenal was Ford Motor Company’s Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti as it was transformed from auto production to production of the B24 Liberator bombers. Willow Run was more than just a factory, it was a place where national necessity created profound social change.

Women began to fill jobs once held by men and proved their value time and again. The image of Rosie the Riveter became iconic for the emergence of women as a key part of the wider workforce.

The Purple Rose Theatre is staging the world premiere of Jeff Duncan’s Willow Run, an affectionate portrayal of this local and historic story of social change.  

Duncan follows the story of four women who come to Willow Run in search of better pay, new challenges and a chance to do their patriotic duty. In each case they move away from traditional, and traditionally lower paid, “women’s work” to do a “man’s job.”

Donna is an Ypsilanti hairdresser, Liz Marie is an Alabama waitress, Berenice is a Tennessee maid, and Evelyn is a young student at Michigan Normal (now Eastern Michigan University) studying to be a teacher.

Rather than stage this as a straight drama, Duncan tells his stories in the form of a musical revue. The setting is the factory, complete with corrugated metal walls, clouded windows, and airplane parts hanging from the ceiling. But at the center of it all is a music stand with a violin, a harp, and a guitar. Music and dance weave their way through a series of vignettes exploring gender and racial prejudice, the economic hardships of the plant workers, the rigorous job training, the stress of having loved ones in the military, and much more.

The style is reminiscent of several traveling stage shows and Hollywood films made during World War II to boost patriotism and sell war bonds such as This Is the Army and Stage Door Canteen.

Duncan certainly hits on many of the major topics. The format doesn’t leave much room for character development. Duncan falls back on the usual stereotypes. Some social frictions that still divide us are patched up much too easily.

But director Guy Sanville has assembled a fine cast, many of them Purple Rose regulars. He fully realizes the style and movement that is the best part of Duncan’s approach. The production gives audiences a mix of humor and music and then makes that necessary subtle shift to drama. This is World War II after all.

Michelle Mountain is all big grins and can-do spirit as the ever-optimistic Donna. She becomes the leader of the foursome in pushing them to find joy in what they are doing and in standing up for their rights in a difficult environment.

Rhiannon Ragland plays Liz Marie as one tough cookie with an eye for advancing herself and shaking off her small town southern background while retaining the racial bigotry of her former community. Ragland makes the character real while not making her villainous. Ragland also did the choreography, combining the swing dance styles of the period with some ballet movements. 

K. Edmonds plays Berenice, the warm-hearted, philosophical black maid who comes north to find a new home and maybe some new attitudes. Edmonds is a wonderful actress. Her face is alive with a multitude of emotions. She handles drama and comedy with equal skill. She is also an outstanding singer. Her quiet, musing version of “You Are My Sunshine” brings out all the sadness that is intended. Edmonds also gets to sing a bit of Bessie Smith (a role she played recently at Theatre Nova).

Duncan uses the characters of Liz Marie and Berenice to deal with racial tension. Berenice makes note that she still faces racial bias even in the north. History tells us that racial animosity was as deep and divisive in the north as in the south. 

Lauren Knox plays Evelyn, the sweet young coed who first wants a desk job at the plant but then falls in love with riveting. Knox is bright and upbeat as Evelyn. She has an especially touching moment in the second act.

David Bendena plays several male characters from a tough-talking foreman to a rations hustler to a severely myopic slumlord. Bendena is always reliable and here gives just enough nuance to each character to make them different and funny.

Angela Kay Miller and Caitlin Cavannaugh round out the cast playing several small roles and filling out the factory group in musical numbers. Cavannaugh provides a strong lead voice on several songs.

Brad Phillips provides most of the musical accompaniment on guitar. He plays and sings well. He also plays Evelyn’s pilot boyfriend as a dream image.

Phillips and Angie Kane Ferrante are the music directors. The music includes music from the '40s and other periods. Duncan thanks Phillips, Ferrante, and Jeff Daniels and his son Ben Daniels for the music. 
The labor song “Bread and Roses” is played as theme and anthem, summing up the strength of the women who took a chance, braved an unfamiliar environment and opened the doors to new possibilities for the generations that followed.

Duncan’s play is sometimes too facile and the revue format doesn’t always work, but Willow Run is an entertaining and informative play about an important period of Michigan history that had an earth-shaking impact on the world.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

"Willow Run" continues 2 pm Sundays, 3 pm Wednesdays and Saturdays, and 8 pm Thursdays-Saturdays through Sept. 1 at the Purple Rose Theater, 137 Park Street, Chelsea. For tickets and more information, call 734-433-7673 or visit purplerosetheatre.org.