review: in times of war

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[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-IN-TIMES.html%5D

IN TIMES OF WAR

by David Alan Moore
Directed by Ann Filmer
Stage Left Theatre Company
3408 North Sheffield/ (773) 883-8830
www.stagelefttheatre.com
Through November 11, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
October 7, 2006

Enter the intimate lobby space at Stage Left Theatre carefully and note the dramaturgical gems that greet you. You will hear Franklin Delano Roosevelt speaking, to eager applause. You will hear the Andrews Sisters singing. And you will see posters and essays, juxtaposing modern-day and World War II era patriotic propaganda, and information about terror and prisoners of war. The events depicted in David Alan Moore‘s grand new play In Times of War are based on actual events that transpired in America in 1942 involving a German U-board captain, secret military tribunals crafted specifically to deal with his case, the public policy claims made at the time, and the private moral struggles for the individuals involved. The playwright has crafted theatre from those events that speak to those days and communicate directly with us today during our own “war on terror”. The period details bring us into the production and the production values, the writing, and the performances keep us there.

The entire action of the play takes place over a two-day period in a military base somewhere in America. Scenic designer Kurt Sharp has crafted a streamlined single set with several performances areas. We are in a room with a cot, a high small window, and table and chair, and we are also in an office with desk and other paraphernalia arrayed lengthwise along one of the long walls of the rectangular, flexible performance space. Posters include the “Loose Lips Sink Ships” variety and evoke the paranoia of the times in the first several months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Visuals and music of the times set up the dichotomy of eager, bouncing, positive citizen romantic visions and the dark reality of being at war with an enemy with shifting rules of combat. Sound designer Edward Reardon creates a pastiche of contemporary music including Bing Crosby’s version of “Don’t Fence Me In”, Bing and Judy Garland singing “You’re Mine” from Bing’s radio show, the Andrews Sisters, and other recognizable tunes to fill the pre-show and intermission sound track. Reardon’s original discordant and disquieting tonal music is used as action begins and as scenes change throughout the piece, immediately setting a distinct dramatic tone. After the a range of hard-hitting themes are addressed in the first Act, the intermission soundtrack returns to the upbeat cultural tempo of the middle 1940s, including Johnny Mercer’s “Accentuate the Positive”. The juxtaposition of hyper cheeriness and deadly serious and surreptitious investigation techniques during wartime is expert and powerful.

The characters exhibit paranoia about their specially crafted situation. One asks very early on in the show “”Who else knows about this?” We are immediately put on notice that the rules have been bent by the military to interview the German prisoner Georg Dietze (Jeremy Sher). The two additional characters rounding out this small ensemble are both military colonels, representing different strategies of coping with the changing military rules or excuses for new rules of dealing with prisoners of war. Colonel Warren (Don Tieri) follows the rules, worries about appearances, and is frustrated with questioning authority. Colonel Solomon (Paul Dunckel) is a young attorney (evoking some memories of the youthful military lawyer assigned to prosecute a base commander in “A Few Good Men”) who finds his voice and keeps his own counsel about the morality of secret commissions. He asks at one point, “If this is all going to go on in secret, why bother at all?” Colonel Warren, to his credit, replies “Someday history may require that we appeared to have made an effort.” And the story begins.

The playwright expertly layers themes within each character and across the action of the play. Dietze openly expresses his anti-Semitism for example, yet has been assigned Solomon, a Jewish defense attorney. Dietze quickly resolves his reservations with a relevant contemporary cultural reference: “If Hank Greenberg can play for the Tigers then you can play for me.” Subtler forms of anti-Semitism are presented between Solomon and Warren, dramatizing the off-hand, accepted, yet still biting anti-Semitism rampant in U.S. society of the time.

Director Ann Filmer balances action with inaction – Dietze never leaves his cell. The two American military men represent different extremes of men in uniform: for Warren obedience to rules and regulations and orders is paramount. For him, the bottom line is to kill or be killed. Solomon, the military defense attorney, represents a belief in a loving and peaceful God, and a hope for the laws of men.

Lighting design by John Kohn III is spare and effective; properties by Jenniffer J. Thusing are on point; costumes by Ashley Pausig are exactly right. The dramaturgic playbill essay and lobby display by LaRonika Thomas are models for such things – just enough information, carefully edited and powerfully displayed.

“In times of war, the laws are silent”, quotes Warren to Solomon. Dietze notes to Solomon at one point in their conversations “this is war – two men in a room”. The spine tingles with the contemporary resonance. The theme are numerous; the story underlying this drama is true; the performances are powerful; the drama is real; and the theatre is moving. A smashing new play.

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 7, 2006)

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