- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 11, 2001

''Pearl Harbor." "Saving Private Ryan." "Enemy at the Gates." Our thirst for war movies seems never to wane, nor does our taste for these depictions of the heat of battle, male bonding under excruciating pressure and acts of heroism small and large.
Women are usually relegated to the roles of nurses, the ones left behind or as loves that cannot be. The impact of war on women is rarely explored in movies and plays.
In "Plenty," playwright David Hare goes where few men have gone before in exploring passionately what post-World War II life is like for one British woman who was active in the French Resistance during the war. His play is being staged by the Potomac Theatre Project at the Olney Theatre Center for the Arts.
In "Plenty," we witness the tragic deterioration of Susan Traherne (Megan West) during the course of 20 years as her mind and her idealism crumble in the wake of the stupefying boredom she experiences in postwar England in the late 1940s and 1950s. Bright, intense and brave, Susan finds life after the battlefield hard to get used to. Like many veterans, she never felt more alive than when risking her life for a cause larger than herself.
Even though you could argue that Susan is more than a little self-destructive, you come away admiring this woman who fights so ceaselessly against the banality and small-mindedness of everyday life. Perhaps her greatest tragedy is that she seems to be a woman born in the wrong time.
"Plenty" goes back and forth in time, starting with Susan running for her life — or what's left of it — in 1962. It takes us to the forests of France where Susan felt most crackling with life, and then through the years, as Mr. Hare traces, with a loving hand, her descent.
Shortly after the war, Susan begins to see that her lofty ideals of pulling for the common good have come to nothing and that the fading British Empire is choosing safety and prudence over action. Susan can be seen as a symbol of the decline of the British Empire. As played with merciless energy by Miss West, Susan is not going down without a fight. She is a beautiful, fragile, high-strung firecracker so webbed in the past that nothing in the present or future can satisfy her.
She becomes a dissenter with nowhere to protest, so instead, she turns inward, wreaking havoc with all who come in contract with her. She tries to have a baby with lower-class bloke Mick (Lindsay Hayes), thinking she will usher in a newer and freer age of child-raising without fathers.
She marries a rising diplomat, Raymond Brock (Paul Morella), whose initial sparks of spunk fade quickly under the weight of protocol, duty and career building. The institution of the British Foreign Office, and Susan's attention-getting histrionics, eventually wear him down. Mr. Morella captures the essence of a drudge so well that you begin to wonder what Susan saw in him in the first place.
Raymond's slow fade may not be as spectacular as his wife's, but it is affecting. He probably went into foreign service for excitement and instead found bureaucracy and ceaseless compromise.
Lee Mikeska Gardner plays Susan's bohemian friend, Alice, with wry vivacity. Her arena of change is sexual — and her numerous lovers (we presume, of both sexes) and refusal to marry and lead a "decent" life are regarded as examples of personal activism. In the end, as ridiculous as it seems, she ends up stuffing envelopes for the cause.
"Plenty" is an engrossing play, not just because of its examination of the effect of the war on women, but because of what it shows us about ourselves. Mr. Hare seems to be telling us that an unexpressed life is not worth living.
One wishes the production stood up as well as the play. Director Jim Petosa does away with the play's short, striking pace by drawing out the scene changes until they become a playlet in themselves. Hooded black stagehands move chairs and carry glassware with such solemn ceremony you would think they were practicing for the queen's coronation. These elaborate, gimmicky scene changes do not add to our understanding of "Plenty."
Similarly, the ending gets the same overblown treatment. The play ends with Susan in a seedy hotel drifting in a haze of drugs and flashing back to the last moments of the war when happy French children set bonfires in the village and Susan has an ecstatic conversation with a farmer. She flings her arms wide and proclaims, "There will be days and days and days like this." Sadder words were never spoken.
A simple, gorgeous moment, but it is all mucked up with the cast lolling onstage holding candles and looking meaningfully at Susan.
"Plenty" has plenty of beauty of its own and does not need much adornment.

WHAT: "Plenty"
WHEN: 7:30 tonight, 2:30 p.m. tomorrow and 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 26
WHERE: Olney Theatre Center for the Arts, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney
PHONE: 301/924-3400

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