Faced with the notion of a two-character drama set in underground prison cells during the Vietnam War, and armed with the additional information that you only ever actually see one of the two American prisoners (the other being represented by a disembodied voice from the other side of a mound of earth), you might well not feel inclined to rush to the world premiere at the TimeLine Theatre Company. Susan Felder's new play, which opened this weekend, comes with the terrible title of "Wasteland," which sounds either like an adaptation of the modernist T.S. Eliot poem or a post-apocalyptic drama, or both.
The other advance strike against this play, of course, is that the idea of prisoners from disparate backgrounds bonding under duress is not exactly new. Let's see, "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me" (currently playing in Oak Park, actually), "Hostage Song" (a musical seen recently at Signal Ensemble Theatre in Chicago) and "The Kiss of the Spider Woman" all mine this theme, at least to a large degree. And that's by no means a complete list.
But "Wasteland" still manages to do something that none of those other plays or movies actually does, and it does it at TimeLine with the benefit of a superbly directed production from William Brown that progressively pulls you deeper and deeper into its carefully honed subterranean landscape.
By focusing her drama on two Americans from very different backgrounds, set at a remove from the current era, Felder somehow makes it possible to very clearly feel the drama as a metaphor for Red State-Blue State America (a timely notion in this political moment). The two prisoners are both named Joe (as in G.I.). One, a Yankee, is a kind of stand-in progressive. Played by Nate Burger, this is the one we actually see. The other Joe, also known as Riley, played by Steve Haggard, is a Southern conservative, inclined toward anti-gay jokes and yet possessive of a stalwart sense of humor and all-around strength of character upon which the other, less-rooted Joe comes to rely. As their chatter through the earth and between cell walls goes on, you come to see "Wasteland," which is quite subtly written, as a kind of metaphor for political division — and, better yet, it's quite the ambivalent metaphor.
One can see the piece as lamenting that these two frequently noncooperative sides of American political discourse have thrown up an unsurmountable wall within the country, a wall that you might well argue was first erected in the Vietnam era, with "Hanoi Jane" and ubiquitously rancorous anger. Or you can see the play as suggesting that the only way for the MSNBC/Fox News die-hards to be able to deal with their fellow Americans on the other side would be to be A: forced to listen to them for lack of anyone else and B: unable to see them and let prejudice take over. I sat there for the 100-minute running time (we could lose at least 10 of those) pondering how one of the great obstacles to modern bipartisan cooperation is our current ability and inclination to get almost all of our information and entertainment from the same side. It was not always thus. Maybe that, too, began with Vietnam.
I was in the company of two very fine actors. Burger, a vulnerable performer most revealing of the contents of his character's internal fears, offers the most obviously excellent piece of work. But Haggard, whose calling card has to be merely his voice, is yet more impressive, building an entire character, under Brown's guidance, from vocal patterns alone. He becomes yet more interesting as he goes.
Felder's piece skips over some day-to-day details of life underground (not all we're told fully adds up, and the little stuff matters). And the arrival of their captors — who might just decide to shoot both these enemy moles, ending their growing relationship — could be far more terrifying, both from a script and a production point of view. There are many other times when the slow build of the piece seems repetitive and you crave more intensity, more staccato rhythms, more risk.
But with some cutting, adding and (most crucially) intensifying, "Wasteland" could be a very powerful and timely play. You already believe this involving and strikingly emotional show throughout. Kevin Depinet's set, a great mountain of earth that acts as a kind of K2 in reverse, is a formidable piece of design in service of a Vietnam drama that turns out to be very much about the American present.
Through Dec. 30 at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave.; 1 hour, 40 minutes. Tickets $32-$42 at 773-281-8463 or timelinetheatre.com