There are so many jaw-dropping things in “Stewardess!” — Kira Obolensky’s informative new play that premiered Saturday at the re-christened Herstory Theatre in St Paul. Theatergoers might want to rest their hands on their jaw to keep it in place.

Telling the real-life history of an activist flight attendant, the show documents enough naked sexism to make viewers gawk in horror. But there are reasons to smile, too, as the cast, under the excellent direction of Noël Raymond, does its sterling work to honestly and unironically sell this throwback story about the fight for gender equality.

Set in the 1950s to today, “Stewardess!” revolves around Mary Pat Laffey (Tracey Maloney in a finely hewn performance), a smart, ambitious “stewardess” who successfully sued Northwest Airlines for equal pay, winning a 1984 ruling in an opinion written by then-appellate judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The play sketches the conditions under which female flight attendants — derided back then as Playboy bunnies in the sky — labored. These women workers — most white and fitting a certain mold as sexism was twinned to racism — were subjected to girdles and weight checks, couldn’t wear glasses and were expected to remain single, although some were secretly married. They also aged out at 32 (!) and were grossly underpaid because, as airline management would explain, men needed to make more to take care of families.

Playwright Obolensky situates Laffey’s fight, brought under the aegis of the Civil Rights Act, in the larger rights struggle; there’s even a snippet of “We Shall Overcome” in the show. That context also includes feminist icon Gloria Steinem (Kimberly Rose Richardson), who co-founded Ms. Magazine with Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Jamila Anderson) in 1971.

An activist can sometimes be off-putting, especially when he or she is right. There’s no hint of that in Maloney’s Mary Pat. The only performer in the show to play a single character, Maloney’s Mary Pat is fully human, showing us by turns that she is fearless and vulnerable, energetic and tired. We cheer the character, and the actor, for bringing us so beautifully along.

The five other cast members perform a dizzying number of characters, all of them clear, even if we don’t like them. Richardson plays two female tentpoles — Steinem, rendered here as unflinching and averse to public speaking, and ditzy, Keokuk, Iowa-bred flight attendant Primmie Frost. Primmie, who benefits from feminism but is not a feminist herself, has no filter. When Primmie reunites with Mary Pat after a long absence, she says, frankly: “You look terrible!”

Elise Langer, who juggles roles as flight attendants, a secretary and anti-equal rights activist Phyllis Schlafly, uses vocal intonations and gestures to sketch her characters. She does it all with wit and aplomb. Ditto John Catron, who, like Adam Whisner, the other male in the show, plays characters that are both morally repugnant and admirable. Anderson also is witty as pioneering black flight attendant Lorraine Wright and a host of other characters.

That “Stewardess!” is a quintessentially American story is underscored in the red, white and blue set design (Joseph Stanley is the scenic designer and Abbee Warmboe is the properties designer).

Surprisingly funny and heartfelt, the show brings a new “shero” to the forefront, one who uses stumbling blocks as steppingstones, even though such commitment comes at great personal cost. It’s a good reminder that our society is in Mary Pat’s debt — as we are for a litany of fighters from Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Harriet Tubman to Betty Friedan and Angela Davis — who committed their lives to uplift.

 

rpreston@startribune.com

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