by Loren Noveck · August 25, 2015
The mother-daughter playwriting team Karen and Kacie Devaney (Kacie also plays the leading role of Celia) of The Great Forgotten have chosen a subject with plenty of possibilities: the sweep of World War I in both Europe and America, and its aftermath in both global trends and individual lives. Unfortunately, they barely skim the surface of the topic, building the play mostly with exposition and polemic, and overstuffing the story with characters rather than developing any of them. Too, the piece feels under-researched; it’s sprinkled with the occasional relevant period fact or opinion but the characters all feel psychologically very modern, and neither the language nor the details serve to transport the audience into the time period.
The story is of two American sisters, Elizabeth and Celia, who trained as nurses in New York and then took that profession overseas, to an evacuation hospital in France, as soon as the US joined World War I. But after their experiences in the war, both personal and professional, they come back wanting an entirely different life, becoming a headlining dance act at a swanky club--turning their energies to a career that provided them some of the freedoms they'd become accustomed to overseas, but without the constant heartbreaks of nursing and war. (Celia’s hometown sweetheart is gravely wounded; Elizabeth falls for one of her patients, a French lieutenant who will soon be called back to the front.)
During an opening scene at the postwar club where Elizabeth and Celia dance the Charleston and drink with their fellow flappers alongside returned soldiers who share their memories, a clunky device draws together Elizabeth and Ben, a bitter and damaged veteran who insists on being told war stories, as his only way of distracting himself from his own painful memories is to hear the stories of others. This kicks the story into flashbacks to the hospital where Elizabeth, Celia, and their fellow nurses served during the war, treating French and American soldiers. Elizabeth has the stronger personality of the two--she's fiercely independent, a natural leader among the nurses and later among the suffragists, where Celia seems to just follow meekly along in Elizabeth’s footsteps. But she all too often becomes nothing more than a mouthpiece for strong opinions about the roles of women, the horrors of war, and many other, mostly fairly generic sentiments.
Director Paul Morris gives some nice, simple but elegant visual flair--the white dresses the women wear, for example, which switch from being flapper dance-hall garb to being nurses' uniforms with the changing of headgear--but doesn’t rein in his actors’ tendencies toward melodrama in emotional moments. And too many scenes seem to be set up simply to give one actor or another a speech they can really dig their teeth into.
There’s certainly a compelling story to be told here, but I wish the Devaneys had found a more theatrically engaging way to tell it.