About two-thirds of the way through A League of Their Own, the Rockford Peaches are in their locker room preparing for a big game when “a telegram from the war department” arrives. One of their husbands has died. Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) opens the telegram, walks past a number of relieved players and stops in front of Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) and Betty Horn (Tracy Reiner). They want to hear nothing more than an apology directed at the other person. “I’m sorry Betty.” Dottie nearly collapses with relief, as Betty actually collapses with grief. It’s a powerful moment.
With Silent Heroes, in production at the Roundtable Ensemble until January 24th, playwright Linda Escalera Baggs and director Rosemary Andress had the opportunity to draw that moment out for an hour and a half. But rather than delving into this fraught and frightening scenario, the show focuses on seventies politics and feminist tropes. It’s a wasted opportunity.
Silent Heroes opens on a group of Marine Corps wives gathered in the ready room of an airplane hanger. One of their husbands has crashed, but, because radio silence was part of the exercise, the wives won’t know who has died until the other five pilots return to base, one by one. Watching six characters caught in this situation should be fascinating, but, as so often happens, characters are passed over in favor of caricatures: June is the mother hen who’s already lost one husband to a crash. Patsy is the one whose husband beats her; Eleanor is the one whose husband cheats on her; Kitty is the one who has cheated on her husband. Felicia is the black nurse from Monroe, County Alabama who needs to conduct herself with Arthur Ashe-like rectitude. Miranda is the young, “liberated woman” who burned a flag at Kent State after witnessing The Massacre.
All of this is admirably subterranean for the first ten minutes or so, but over the next hour and a half every character experiences a significant and melodramatic catharsis. Excuse the spoilers, but you’ve predicted it all anyway: Patsy resolves to leave her husband; Eleanor decides to allow hers back into their bed; Kitty admits her infidelity for the first time. Felicia gets fed up and throws off her mask of unwavering patriotism; Miranda is touched by the courage she sees in the room and embraces that old-fashioned ideal. And June breaks down, needing to receive support rather than provide it. This is all really too much.
There’s a moment at the end of Silent Heroes when Briggs shifts back to her actual subject. Two women are left in the room, and one of their husbands is dead:
Now I know how Miss America feels. … You know, at the pageant. When it comes down to the last two. I always wondered what it felt like. To be standing there. … No matter how much they like each other, no matter how much they admire each other, no matter how much they’ve grown to care ― truly care ― about each other, in those last few moments, they hope ― with everything inside them ― for their friend to lose.
Those contestants have followed every rule and worked as hard as they think they can. Nonetheless, it all comes down to a subjective judgment made by somebody else. Everything is ultimately out of their control ― a reality to which they’re resigned. This is almost exactly how the women in Silent Heroes would have felt, so Briggs was smart to make the comparison (even if she should never have made it explicit). Briggs should watch the faces of those last two Miss America contestants in every video she can find, think about what they’re expressing, what they’re trying not to express, and start a new version of her play from there. The idea behind Silent Heroes merits another draft.
* As promised, every negative theater review will include a suggestion about a better way to spend your 90 minutes. When Silent Heroes opens, Eleanor is reading a worn paperback by Gay Talese. We couldn’t make out the title, but the weather outside reminded us of his classic 1966 Esquire article, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Print it out and read it with a warm drink, or listen to Talese himself read an excerpt at This American Life.