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From Vietnam to LUC to TimeLine: The Story of “Wasteland”

Rainwater careens down an almost vertical underground prison cell and splashes upon an unsuspecting elderly couple.  The stage is dimly lit, accentuating the horrors inflicted upon the only visible character of the show.  The set is literally dirty; every time the main actor lies down, pine needles and grime coat his bruised back.  The play is set in Vietnam, 1968.

“Wasteland” is the title of the show, and it opened for a three month run on Oct. 12 at TimeLine Theater in Chicago.  Susan Felder, a Loyola University Chicago and Northwestern acting Professor wrote the play.  “Wasteland” is Felder’s debut writing credit.

Although this is Felder’s first produced piece, the play has received some decent acclaim from Chicago publications, including a  “RECCOMMENDED” from the Sun-Times.  Although this production is being hailed as a world premiere, “Wasteland” was performed last November at Loyola in workshop form.  I played the character “Joe” in this production alongside, or at least near, Loyola Senior Chris Thoren.

The play is an intense experience, for actors and audience members alike.  The story revolves around the rocky relationship between two very different P.O.W’s, both named “Joe”.  The only visible character of the play is named Joe, while the other “Joe”, referred to by his middle name Riley, is behind the curtain for the entire show.  The play opens to Joe attempting to do pushups in his grungy cell.

He is malnourished and almost naked.  His head is shaved for the most part, with the occasional nick or cut.  He looks to be on the edge of destruction when behind the curtain a thud as well as a string of expletives is heard.  Joe responds after the Vietcong prisoners have left with, “Are you okay over there?” (This excerpt was taken directly from the workshop script from last year.)

This line addresses exactly what the play is about: crossing boundaries of difference to survive together.  While wildly different, both characters need each other to maintain sanity and hope in a quite literal hellhole of Vietnam.  The play spans about a year period of these P.O.W’s lives, and follows their mental and physical anguish throughout.

According to Felder, the “picking up” of this play happened in a blink of an eye,  “It was a whirlwind, it’s impossible to get a play produced this fast.  This never happens.  It was a miracle.”  Although it was produced speedily, the production almost did not get off the ground.  It took more than just Felder’s initiative to get the play produced.

TimeLine’s eventual chosen director for the show, William Brown, went to the Theater early last summer and suggested the show for this years line up.  According to Felder, the company initially thought the script was too bleak to be performed.

“We came in and did a read through.  It went amazing.  The audience couldn’t breath afterwards, and the board members went upstairs and changed their season immediately.”

Getting Wasteland accepted at TimeLine was just one of the first hurdles the production team would overcome in the coming months.  For Susan, a lack of artistic control over her piece was frustrating.

“They put Riley upstage.  We still disagree on that.  I love the set, but Riley upstage, it changes the play and it makes the audience observers instead of participants.”

In our production at Loyola the audience sat in a “U” formation around the stage.  There were two rows of people at my sides and three rows in front of me.  Behind the front rows and a curtain was Riley played by Chris Thoren.  This made for a kind of reaching effect, and my character’s energy was focused on breaking through the wall, or, the front rows.

According to Felder, the humor embedded in her script was placed to helped relieve the audience and actors from the oppressive situation of the play.  While irony and sarcasm still played a major role in TimeLine’s production, it was less prevalent than in Loyola’s.

“They’re not embracing the humor in this one as much, and that’s okay, every production is going to be different,” she said.

For Felder, the oppressive nature of the play, and the grueling rewrites that go along with it took a heavy mental toll.

“I was too raw after living it that hole.  The actors went home, you know, and dated their girlfriends.  I went home and did re-writes.  I had to get back in that hole again and again.  It was not a good place.”  According to Felder, the toll the play had taken on her has diminished to a certain extent, and the concern she had for herself has transferred to the actors in the show, who she refers to as her “boys.”

Felder’s concern for the actors’ (Nate Burger and Steve Haggard) is indicative of her personality as a whole.  I remember coming into weekend rehearsals last year, sometimes hung-over, and feeling/looking like a bus recently hit me.  Felder was always equipped with ibuprofen, bagels, and the most concrete direction I’ve ever gotten.

She was concerned that her play might be affecting me outside of rehearsal, and always encouraged us to “get out of the hole” whenever we needed to.  Without her attention, I may not have actually been “fine” as I told her so many times.

Our production only rehearsed for about a month and a half while the TimeLine Company worked for about four months to get a final product.  We did four performances while the “boys” at TimeLine will end up doing over fifty-five.  According to Felder, Nate Burger’s strategy for staying out of the oppressive nature of the play is to simply not think about it until the lights come up.  “He looks at the stage and sees dirt, and he knows he’s there.  That’s all he has to do to get started.”

After our first show at Loyola, I remember coming off stage and feeling absolutely out of it.  The show itself was a bit of a blur, and my head was throbbing.  Doing that fifty-five times has got to take something out of you.

In talking with my girlfriend, Taylor Unwin, a Loyola Junior, after a preview of TimeLine’s production, and post-show wine reception they had, I asked her what she thought. “It was great. But Nate looked so  tired afterwards.”  She immediately asked, “How many times did you say he has to do all that again?”

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The Hub Bub is a collection of articles, videos, audio, photo slideshows, interactive maps and other media produced by students enrolled in journalism courses at Loyola University Chicago's School of Communication. For more about the School of Communication, our award winning faculty, and our state of the art facilities located in the heart of Chicago, visit our website.