‘Wasteland’ at LifeLine: Alone in earthen cell, G.I. battles twin demons isolation and fear
By Lawrence B. Johnson
There is a rising in one’s pain quotient over the course of Nate Burger’s tormented, soul-baring performance as a bereft prisoner of war in Susan Felder’s new play “Wasteland,” now in its world premiere at TimeLine Theatre. What begins as empathy evolves through understanding to a conclusion in absolute heartbreak.
Set during the Vietnam War, “Wasteland” is a soldier’s story – a POW’s story. It’s also a gripping portrait of what it means to be truly alone, isolated from every caring touch or voice, subjected to constant physical and psychological abuse and never knowing what’s coming next or when it will end, if ever.
What makes Felder’s work so remarkable is not its familiar hypothesis but its extraordinary realization: We don’t need to see the tormentors of this G.I. called Joe. No need to witness staged torture made to look real. We need only see this young man trying to keep his head straight as he copes with conditions in his hole-in-the ground prison cell. And listen to the swell and fall of his will, confidence, hope.
Our conduit into Joe’s tumultuous mental state is through the playwright’s device of a second prisoner, on the other side of the wall, heard but never seen. His name is Riley. Like Joe, we get to know Riley only through the two prisoners’ conversations. (Steve Haggard voices the unseen cohabitant with ardent passion on a range of subjects from women and patriotism to the certitude that Richard Nixon has their backs.)
But more to the point, we learn a great deal about the guy we can see, Joe, through these exchanges – and through Joe’s physical reaction to Riley’s monologues. While the two prisoners have a certain obvious bond and express mutual support (they even manage to fashion some games), much of the time they’re at odds over issues large and very small. They also tend to occupy opposite ends of a psychological teeter-totter: When one soldier’s spirits are up, the other is often depressed. And the slumps can be extreme. At those times, the bickering stops and the support kicks in.
Observing this emotional churn – and the desperate attempts to stabilize when the going gets really rough – one might arrive at a plausible question: Does Riley actually exist outside Joe’s mind? Just such a projection famously occurs in the film “Castaway,” in which the Tom Hanks character personifies and converses with a volleyball that washes ashore. He even paints a face on it and gives it a name – Wilson.
All that said, it doesn’t especially matter whether we’re listening to dialogue between two men or a colloquy of the mind. What we see is Nate Burger’s very real Joe, a soldier doggedly determined to endure and survive but also a human being pushed ever nearer the breaking point.
Who indeed could even imagine himself in Joe’s place? When not being subjected to electrical charges and other forms of torture, he’s cast back into his miserable, roofless dirt and rock cell, where he sleeps on the floor and hopes each day for rain he might capture to wash himself and rinse his clothing to fend off the mold.
Burger’s performance is – well, the word that leaps to mind is “beautiful.” While this Robinson Crusoe character has figured out myriad little ways to make his situation tolerable, the man struggles with the loneliness and the fear. And now that he has a companion, how unbearable would it be to lose him? Burger conveys a panic bordering on mortification when he believes his new and only friend may have been snatched from him.
No less critical to “Wasteland’s” impact, however, are set designer Kevin Depinet’s dung-hole of a prison and the graphic lighting by Jesse Klug. This is not a place you’d ever want to be. Indeed, you come away with a keen sense of your every creature comfort. That, and a high regard for the intensity, potency and credibility director William Brown has coaxed from two actors whose compressed world resonates in a single skin.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
- Susan Felder talks about the genesis of her new play “Wasteland”: Read the interview.
- A brief history of the Vietnam War: Read it here
Captions and credits: Home page, top and descending: Nate Burger as Joe in the world premiere of Susan Felder’s “Wasteland” at TimeLine Theatre. (Photos by Lara Goetsch)