Axis: cold at heart

100% American Girl is a riveting story


Many World War 2 veterans remember the sexy sound of the voice of Axis Sally, the 100 percent American Girl. No doubt they also remember the horrible things she said in her attempts to dishearten and discourage American troops. Between her sultry voice, and the fact that her program included some of the best American music, the troops were riveted. Other Americans were riveted by the part of the program that gave the names, serial numbers, and home addresses of men who had been captured by the Germans. The American troops listened intently to the voice of an American woman telling them to give up and go home, that they were on the wrong side of the war. They listened as she closed her broadcast by saying she had a hot date, just like their wives and girlfriends at home.

What many veterans may not know is that Axis Sally was truly Mildred Gillars from Portland, Maine. After growing up here, she and a friend moved to New York, where she fell desperately in love with her classics professor at Hunter College. After a childhood full of rejection by boys, she was willing to do anything for him. She moved to Europe to be with him, and under his direction came to be known as Axis Sally. Their broadcast was extremely popular, and the ego that had spent a childhood injured and broken became enlarged by her satisfaction in her own success. She became the perfect example of the banality of evil.

She was convicted of treason for broadcasting Nazi propaganda over American radio waves. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld her conviction, holding that it was possible for Americans to commit treason while residing in an enemy country, and that she could not escape her conviction by remaining in Germany. Mildred Gillars spent 12 years in the Federal Women's Reformatory in West Virginia for her treason, after which she essentially disappeared from the public eye.

100% American Girl, produced this past weekend at the Maine Festival and at the Arts Conservancy Theater & Studio, is Mildred's imagined return to Portland after her 12 years in prison, and 20 years incognito. She attempts to retire peacefully at Longfellows Woods, but finds that life will not let her ignore her past. Written by Colin Sargent, familiar to many of us as the founding editor and publisher of Portland Magazine, the play deals with a range of intense issues, including forgiveness, hubris, and the complicated and sometimes painful process of aging.

The script is very well and creatively written, drawing the audience into the lives of some fascinating and hilarious characters. It tells a melancholy story by mixing light-hearted acceptance of the human condition and the intense pain and shame that many people deal with as they try to resolve themselves by the end of their lives.

The script won the 2002 Maine Playwrights' Festival, held in March at the Acorn School here in Portland. It has been read aloud in front of audiences, and has been met with a warm reception. And the cast of this performance at the ACTS was virtually identical to the cast of the readings. However, although the cast may have been very comfortable and convincing while reading the play, they were not nearly as comfortable performing the play as staged. It's possible that the readings may have had a detrimental effect on the staged performance.

This was simply one step removed from the reading. The scripts were not in the actors' hands, and they were blocked to physically interact with each other, but the intense emotional undercurrents of the play seemed underdeveloped. Many of the actors seemed to feel slightly uncomfortable without the script in hand. Their intonation resembled recitation more than true interaction - some actors struggled with their lines. They seemed to have a difficult time really getting into the skin of the characters. There were moments where they seemed uncomfortable with the physical interaction forced by the blocking. None of these are terrible things, they just tend to be overcome by repeated rehearsals.

The set had similar problems. It seemed more like a first draft. The stage was intended to appear somewhat barren and sterile, and concept that was very fitting and appropriate. However, it seemed hastily constructed. Slides were projected onto the set to be used as storytelling aids - another interesting and creative idea. However, they were not skillfully used. Photos of the characters at different times throughout their lives were intermittently interrupted with photos of the atrocities of World War 2. The somewhat casual presentation of such frightening images detracted from the gravity and horror they were intended to convey. They were not presented in such a way that made them seem necessary to the telling of the story.

All of this said, watching this play begin to take shape in performance was really a pleasurable experience. The work was interesting, and the quality of the performances was improving as we sat watching. It was a work in progress, but the combination of an engaging script and a hard-working and talented cast made it fun to have a window into the growth and evolution involved into the performance process.

Even in retirement, no rest for the guilty.


Are there some crimes for which a person can never be forgiven? That's the question posed by "100 Percent American Girl," a new play by Colin Sargent, winner of the 2002 Maine Playwrights' Festival.

The girl in question is Mildred Gillars, a Portland native who broadcast Nazi propaganda from Berlin during World War II. Gillars (aka "Axis Sally") was captured, spent 12 years in jail for treason, then vanished.

Sargent's play posits that Gillars ended up in a Portland retirement community. Gillars (as played by Marketa Edwards) is articulate, urbane, and extremely prickly. When urged to meet her fellow residents, she snarks, "My solitude is my preexisting condition."

Gillars is eager to conceal her treasonous past, but it won't leave her alone. Sam (Steve Collins), the Lothario of the rest home, is drawn to Gillars, even though he's a former GI who thinks her voice sounds awfully familiar. Then a Holocaust survivor named Lena Eglin (Muriel Kenderline) comes to deliver a lecture, and Gillars is faced with living evidence of the crimes she supported.

The play is divided between the rest home and wartime Berlin, sometimes awkwardly. Gillars tells the tale of her metamorphosis into Axis Sally to an assistant caregiver named Ellie (Charity Thackston), largely because Gillars sees herself in this pregnant girl with a horrible boyfriend. In flashbacks, Gillars blames her entanglement with the Nazis on her lover, the head of Berlin radio. "You know what I've done because I love you!" she cries, as Allied bombs blast the studio.

There are many flashbacks, some staged flatly, undramatized; the actors merely stand in a group around a radio microphone and deliver speeches. This show might actually work best as a radio drama. It doesn't rely upon visuals, Sargent has a good ear for language, and it would be fitting to tell the tale of Axis Sally over the air.

The first act is tightly written. Suspense is nicely built and maintained as Gillars slowly reveals her past to Ellie and the audience. Gillars tells tales of knowing Edna St. Vincent Millay in Greenwich Village; would that the parallels between these two girls from Maine were explored further, since Millay went on to propagandize against fascism.

The second act lacks drive, runs too long and presents a confused picture of Gillars. She has already said, "I was wrong, wrong, wrong," but in Act II she takes defiant pride in being a dark celebrity, and says that she turned to Nazism because she was never popular as a young girl. It's offensive, and not quite coherent.

Pruning should make "100 Percent American Girl" a powerful piece of work. Some of the rest-home scenes are full of wit and pathos; one resident says that whatever Gillars did, "It couldn't have been as mean as assisted living."