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In ‘Wasteland,’ a stranger’s voice saves POW jailed in a hole

An American soldier (Nate Burger pictured) captured by enemy Vietnam forms an unlikely alliance with neighboring American soldier (Steve Haggard

An American soldier (Nate Burger, pictured), captured by the enemy in Vietnam, forms an unlikely alliance with a neighboring American soldier (Steve Haggard, not pictured) as the two battle dire conditions, loss of faith and each other in TimeLine Theatre's world premiere of "Wasteland" by Susan Felder, directed by William Brown, October 12-December 30, 2012. For more information, visit | Photo by Lara Goetsch

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When: Through Dec. 30

Where: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington

Tickets: $32-$42

Info: (773) 281-8463;

Updated: November 24, 2012 6:07AM

What keeps man alive? There are the bare essentials, of course — food and water, and some minimal protection from the elements. But beyond that there also is the absolute necessity for some form of human contact, even if it is only a voice. Those intent on breaking prisoners of war and hostages (or terrorists) know very well that few things have quite the powerful, disorienting effect as isolation — the feeling that no one in the outside world believes you are alive or has any way of reaching you. It is the sense that you are already dead.

This is the essence of the situation in “Wasteland,” Susan Felder’s drama, now in its world premiere at TimeLine Theatre. Above ground, the Vietnam War is raging. But in the steamy, underground cell in the jungle where Joe (Nate Burger), an American soldier, is being held captive, the war has become a ferociously internal battle. How long can he hold on to his sanity, and his will to survive, in this rain-saturated mudhole where tree roots dangle, insects multiply, only the barest bit of sunlight can be detected, and, worst of all, he may just have become wholly forgotten?

Joe, who has been held in this hellish place for six months, does all the things you might expect, from willing himself to exercise and keep up his physical prowess, to washing himself, to carefully unwrapping and measuring out the meager ration of rice periodically dropped into his cell. But he is losing it. And then a life-saver of sorts arrives as another prisoner gets shoved into a cell somewhere beside him. Joe cannot see Riley (Steve Haggard) — and neither do we — but the very fact of his presence, his voice, and, after a while, even his most aggravating prejudices (yes, hell can be other people, as well as no people), give Joe a reason to keep going. And of course the same is true for Riley.

The two men initially bond through music, with Joe beating out a rock tune and Riley, a Southerner, calling for country western music. Very quickly (far too quickly, in fact, given the era and situation), Joe lets Riley know that he is gay. This does not sit well with the straight guy, and there is plenty of banter about it. But survival is now the crucial issue, and the men talk about everything from sex to food fantasies to movies, at moments engaging in play-acting and reinventing scenes from “Star Trek” and John Wayne movies. Matters of politics generate too much tension to pursue. Thoughts of home unhinge the men. The sudden depression and silence of one of them sends the other into a harrowing panic.

Felder’s scenario here is not entirely new — similar notions have been dealt with by the Irish playwright Frank McGuinness in “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me,” and in the work of Jean Genet. But the play is true and finely observed. And with just one actor seen throughout, and the other only a voice, “Wasteland,” directed by William Brown, becomes an intriguing exercise for both the performers and audience. Burger’s work is fully believable and compelling, with beautiful small moments of truth (like his simple but passionate embrace of a rock in his cell) completely heartbreaking. Haggard has a very different job, but it is every bit as difficult and tricky; he must listen to and imagine everything in order to be as convincing as he is. We must feel both men in this space.

And then there is Kevin Depinet’s set (which at one point becomes rain-soaked). It is just the latest marvel by this endlessly talented designer, and is beautifully lit by Jesse Klug. You can almost smell the mud and rot.

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