Playwright: Susan Felder. At: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave. Tickets: 1-773-281-8463; www.timelinetheatre.com; $32-$42. Runs through: Dec. 30
Authors of the Greatest Generation produced novels, plays and films about World War II for 50 years after 1945, so a new work about Vietnam is not surprising a mere 40 years after we dishonorably extracted ourselves from that messy, costly (58,000 Americans dead) and probably-avoidable mire of post-Colonial, anti-Communist warfare. I wonder, however, what's to be gained by revisiting the politics and national divisions of that war, which is what Susan Felder does for a substantial portion of her new play, Wasteland.
The play is set in North Vietnam circa 1972, where two U.S. grunts, both named Joe, are held in underground prison cells roughly carved out of raw earth and separated by a tangle of roots, hard-packed earth and a portion of board wall. The cells are open to the sky abovejust a little too high for escapeallowing light and tropical rain to come down. The play's gimmick is that we see only one cell and one GI Joe (Nate Burger) while we only hear the other (Steve Haggard).
They are completely different Joes: a Yankee and a Southerner, one pro-war and pro-Nixon and the other anti-war and anti-Nixon, one a draftee and the other an enlistee, one straight and one gay (at least with proclivities), one religious and one not, one a little bit country and the other a little bit rock 'n' roll. Through their sometimes-opposing discourse, Felder lays out all the homefront disputes over Vietnamhistory in which I have little interest, frankly. Hey, I was there.
For me, Wasteland is far more potent, skillful and successful as an exploration of the desperation, hopelessness, isolation and mind-numbing boredom of captivity, along with the stress of not knowing from day-to-day if you'll live or die. This is the territory of universal truth irrespective of war, era or politics. It could as easily be Gitmo or a gulag or Andersonville Prison as Vietnamany place in which captivity is combined with lack of access to information. Under these circumstances, the growing companionship and life-saving co-dependency of the two Joes give Wasteland power, as does Felder's carefully crafted and actor-savvy language, which never bores, not even during the exchanges of cliché opinions.
This world premiere also is elevated by an excellent production that benefits from caring and lucid direction by William Brown, a superbly realistic and gritty scenic design complete with rain by Kevin Depinet (lighting by Jesse Klug) andabove allan honest and remarkable performance by Burger, who is totally immersed in his wet and filthy environment and completely committed to Joe's reality. Haggard's voice-only support is varied, effective and absolutely vital, but Burger is the one whose award-worthy work carries Wasteland.