Where: TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
When: through Dec. 30
Phone: 773-281-8463 ext. 6
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Prisoners of war from different backgrounds bonding in times of duress is an old theatrical theme, but playwright-actor-director-teacher Susan Felder gives it an interesting new spin in “Wasteland.” And the world premiere at TimeLine Theatre Company is everything an author could wish for thanks to William Brown’s masterful direction and fine acting by Nate Burger and Steve Haggard.
Despite a title that conjures up T.S. Eliot’s famous poem or vast stretches of barren desert, the Vietnam-era play actually is set in the jungle, specifically in “a small cell underground, Vietnam or Cambodia, circa 1972.” The novel device is that, although there are two characters, both named Joe — as in “G.I. Joe” — we only see one of them (Burger). The other, also known as Riley (Haggard), is thrown into the unseen neighboring cell behind a wall shortly after the 100 intermission-less minutes begin. By this time we’ve gotten a sense of the terrible conditions Joe has had to endure for the six months or so he’s been imprisoned.
As the two men start to talk, we learn that Joe is a comparatively progressive Northerner who questions the war our government has gotten us into, while Riley is an ultrapatriotic conservative Southerner with a penchant for anti-gay slurs, though it’s not quite clear why he assumes that Joe is a homosexual. The bones of contention between them are many and the tension mounts, but simultaneously, they begin to offer mutual support and comfort as each experiences bouts of intense discomfort, doubt and despair. Naturally, the issues of the era arise — the draft vs. a volunteer military, the challenges of fighting a new kind of war, the fear of POWs and MIAs being forgotten — but many of the dichotomies also are applicable today, for example in the differences between Democrats and Republicans in the recent election.
Felder’s writing is knowing and nuanced, but “Wasteland” does have some problems. The difficulty of depicting the daily life of prisoners is finding a way to show the repetitious tedium without being tediously repetitious, and the play — 10 minutes too long at least — doesn’t escape unscathed. At the same time, it skirts some details that would contribute to our understanding of the situation. For instance, though we see Joe plagued by bugs, dirt, rain, poor rations and insomnia, he seems never to have to go to the bathroom.
In addition, the danger and imminent threat of death are downplayed. While there are references to torture, and their captors come by once and capriciously fire into the cells, we don’t feel the stress the constant fear of pain and death must cause.
Burger does, however, do an excellent job of conveying the physical and emotional strains of someone trying to survive in an unbearable situation, and his body language is as telling as his words. Haggard has the harder job: He has to create a whole character just with his vocal inflections, and he does that quite well.
Still, Kevin Depinet’s scenic design arguably steals the show — with the help of Jesse Klug‘s lighting and Andrew Hansen’s sound design. It’s a little like Joe is trapped on a rocky heap inside a volcano, with a narrow shaft on light descending from the top of a conical opening and a fringe of jungle flora. Most impressive of the special effects is a torrential downpour that floods his cell — and, on opening night the front row, too, though I’m sure the leaks have been fixed. Given the intimate size of the house, this could be called “immersive theater,” and that’s definitely part of what makes “Wasteland” effective.