March 13 2013 12:00 AM

World-premiere play follows unwed teenage mothers in the ‘60s

Photo by Steve VanMaele Julia Hays (left) and Carolyn Conover

Friday, Feb. 22 — Church bells seem to echo forever — binnnnng, boooooong, binnnnng, booooong — floating over the air, signifying either that mass is about to start or that a big event has just happened. But for the girls living at the Our Lady of Victory Home for Unwed Mothers, that sound also gives structure to their unraveling lives.

Those bells mean bedtime, mealtime and all the other activities of the day in “The Lady Victory,” a world premiere play opening this weekend at Michigan State University. The show was adapted by Ann Folino White from the book of poems with the same name by Jane Vincent Taylor. It concerns a group of unwed teenage mothers, who often question and fear what’s happening to them, and the nuns who take care of them in 1960s Oklahoma. Oh, and the storyline follow them as they put together a production of “Oklahoma!” Hello, escapism.

The play has some very strong performance. Within her first 30 seconds on stage, Carolyn Conover, as Sister B, proves herself to be the heart of the show. A good portion of Conover’s stage time is spent with a monologue, or talking to a baby — and once she starts, you don’t want her to stop. She’s warm, and there’s a kindness to her that Sister Sidney (Kate Busselle) lacks.

But Conover also has very real moments, when the warm faade goes away and she can bring it even more. Another notable standout is Erika Clauson as Sally New, bringing a deadpan and sarcasm that often leads to big laughs. Clauson has a moment in Act II where she’s able to show off a much more dramatic side — a nice surprise to watch. Same goes for Jocelyn Elyssa’s Louise, who up until a vital scene late in the show, was a character used mainly for humor.

However, the cast of this show is large — 17 in all — making it difficult to catch everyone’s name and turning a few characters into nameless wallflowers. Brigitte Bechtel’s scenic design adds a nice element to the show, as does the lighting work by Stephanie Henderson. Costume designer Daniel Hobbs’ adds little touches that work wonders and stick to the era, such as Sister B’s glasses.

“Lady Victory” has quite a bit of comedy, which only shows how young and not ready to have babies these girls are. But there are other moments that hit hard, reminding the audience that this wasn’t a place these girls wanted to be — or lives that they had imagined they would have.