By George Lenker | Special to The Republican
on September 05, 2014
For just a few nights this fall, Mildred E. Walker will once again reign at the Academy of Music in Northampton.
No, the Academy’s executive director Debra J’Anthony isn’t taking a leave of absence. Walker will only run the storied theater as a character in the new play, “Nobody’s Girl.” The play will be presented Oct. 17-18 at the Academy.
The play tells the tale of Walker, strong-willed and spirited real-life employee at the Academy in the 1940s who was suddenly promoted to run the theater when manager Frank Shaughnessy was called to military service during WW II.
Harley Erdman was commissioned by the theater to write the play, which is described as a “screwball comedy inspired by real events that took place at the Academy in the early 1940s.” The basic story is that after Walker was promoted, a film company that was leasing the building took exception to a woman running the Academy and brought the case to court.
Erdman said that J’Anthony approached him about writing the script two years ago after meeting with him and providing him with documents about the case.
“I went home and read them that same evening and immediately got excited about writing a play,” he said. “I knew there was a story there—conflict, colorful characters, great period-specific language, the arc of a story. But most of all, my curiosity was prompted, because the documents in the file do not tell the whole story. “
Erdman said that there were huge gaps in the overall tale, leaving him with a thousand questions. But the uncertainty sparked his creativity further.
“Having questions is always what inspires me to throw myself into a project, to delve into its specifics, to research it obsessively,” he said. “It’s ultimately what engages my imagination.”
The film company’s main complaint was steeped in sexism, Erdman said, but there were other components to the story.
“Sexism was certainly front and center, explicitly and implicitly: they basically said they did not believe a woman could handle the job,” he said. “But there also were issues about power—they wanted to appoint their person, not the Board’s—and of class, and of regional/national control versus local control. Ultimately, these issues intertwine in complex ways, and my play attempts to acknowledge that complexity.”
In his research, Erdman also uncovered fascinating tidbits about Walker: She drove a Cadillac (not very typical in Northampton in those days); she wore high-heels shoes and you could hear her coming from the next room. He also unearthed the fact that growing up in Northampton, her family had a different address almost every year—a sign of the transience and possibly difficult circumstances for her family whose sustenance hinged on her father, a menial laborer.
“Also, that a bit later in her life, if not at the time of the play, she was having an affair with a married man, a photographer who had worked as a projectionist at the Academy,” he said. “He divorced his wife a few days before he married Mildred.”
Although the play is described as a screwball comedy, Erdman said he doesn’t try to write “laughs” per se, but the material lent itself very readily to comedy.
“Screwball comedies usually feature gender inversion—a powerful, witty woman linked romantically with a feminized man. They feature a world in which all the characters, even minor ones, are off-kilter. They feature distinctly American rhythms, speech patterns,” he said. “All these qualities were there in the materials. Screwball comedy, which was actually Debra J’Anthony’s original idea, just felt right. That said, it’s not a pure screwball comedy. It’s an original play with screwball comedy elements. Call it a play inspired by screwball comedy.”
The playwright hopes his work will make people see “the heroism and tenacity of ordinary, uncelebrated people–long-forgotten people–local to our community.”
“The circumstances and characters are fascinating, outrageous, funny, and still deeply relevant to the world we live in today,” he said.