Every war has its casualties. But when a country wages war against its own people, and those people don't even know they're under attack, those casualties reach new heights of horror.
That's the theme of The Land Southward, an ambitious but ultimately disappointing play receiving its regional premiere with Springs Ensemble Theatre.
Written by California playwright Darcy Hogan and helmed here by first-time director Jason Lythgoe, who starred in the original 2005 production, The Land Southward examines the controversial testing of atomic weapons in the Nevada desert during the 1950s. At the time, the place was considered an unpopulated wasteland. But radioactive particles can be carried by the wind, and not far from the test site were numerous small towns inhabited largely by Mormons.
It was a different time. A naïve time. A time when families packed picnic baskets so they could spend the afternoon watching the blasts from a nearby ridge. A time when radiation-sickened mothers were diagnosed with nothing more serious than "housewife syndrome."
Hogan clearly did her homework in researching the period. Unfortunately, by cramming so many historical facts into the narrative, she left no room for character development.
The story revolves around Joe, a young soldier newly assigned to the testing grounds, and his adoring wife Maggie. While proud to be part of such an important project, Joe begins to suspect something is wrong when Maggie loses one baby, and then another.
Although the couple is played with passionate sincerity by Jeremy Joynt and Carmen Vreeman, I was unmoved by their story because I never really got to know them as individuals. Their physical maladies are described in detail, but their inner lives — what makes them tick as human beings — are left unexplored.
These scenes alternate with ones featuring an appealingly earnest JaNae Stansbery as Liz, a present-day writer driven to uncover the truth behind the testing. But these scenes also lack punch because Liz faces no real opposition in her effort. People seem all too willing to talk to her, and other than a pair of shadowy figures that are dealt with too briefly, no one stands in her way.
The one character we do get to know is May, an elderly survivor of the blasts — in fact, the only member of her family to survive them. In her interviews with Liz, she looks back on her life with a wry but solemn wit, played to perfection by Sallie Walker.
"Dying's just a part of life," May says to explain the townspeople's easy acceptance of their fate. "It's not even the worst part, just the last part."
Lightening the often grim mood are brief vignettes parodying classic game shows and those cheesy educational films of the 1950s. In a weird way, these are the most affecting parts of the play, making the same point as the main story but with a lighter, more satirical touch.
Sarah Shaver's costumes were simple but effective in communicating a little bit about each of the play's 30-odd characters. And the set — credited in the program to the entire crew — was a miracle of economy, moving from May's homey living room to Liz's cluttered office to the vast desert itself with a few well-chosen details.
Despite its flaws, The Land Southward tells an important story, one that deserves to be more widely known. If nothing else, it reminds us that sometimes we can't afford to let history repeat itself.
Read more about the play here.