BWW Review: World Premiere of Walt McGough's PATTERN OF LIFE
Written by Walt McGough, Directed by Bridget Kathleen O'Leary; Scenic & Properties Design, Courtney Nelson; Costume Designer, Leonard Augustine Choo; Lighting Designer, Nate Jewett; Sound Designer, Edward Young; Stage Manager, Michele Teevan
CAST (in alphabetical order): Nael Nacer, Lewis D. Wheeler
Performances through June 29 by New Repertory Theatre and the Boston Center for American Performance at the Lane-Comley Studio 210, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-923-8487 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Pattern of Life is a play about life and death that asks a lot of questions and challenges the audience to ruminate on the answers. There are no easy answers when it comes to the topic of drones, or "remotely piloted aircraft" as one of the two characters in Walt McGough's script prefers to call them. However, it is not their use that is up for debate here. Rather, McGough accepts them as a given in the modern military arsenal and focuses his laser on the collateral damage to craft a compelling theatrical experience.
With bleacher-style seating on all four sides and banks of spotlights trained on the small, intimate performance area, Scenic Designer Courtney Nelson and Lighting Designer Nate Jewett create an arena where two competitors face off mano a mano, even as they play to the audience. At times, it feels like a boxing match, especially when Lewis Wheeler (Carlo) and Nael Nacer (Rahmat) make their entrance and eye each other warily while they circle around a square table. At other times, it feels like a courtroom drama with the two opponents pleading their cases to the assembled jurors, hoping for a verdict that will bring justice to their cause.
Director Bridget Kathleen O'Leary collaborated with playwright McGough to develop Pattern of Life and give it its world premiere as part of New Repertory Theatre's inaugural Next Rep Black Box Festival. Her ability to keep the focus on the human aspect of the story sets the tone for these two fine actors, allowing them to explore both the good qualities and the flaws in their characters. Interestingly, while Carlo and Rahmat never meet, other than in their dreams/nightmares, Wheeler and Nacer forge a strong emotional connection that informs the way they play their roles. Some of the credit goes to McGough for infusing the speech of one with thoughts or comments about the other, but the way in which the speeches are delivered convinces us that neither man operates in a vacuum and that they are constantly, painfully aware of the other's presence in the world.
Carlo is a drone pilot, a member of what other pilots disparagingly call the "Chair Force," who operates out of a trailer in the Nevada desert. In a long-distance version of a real-life video game, he is given orders to hit a target in Pakistan. When a young boy is killed by mistake, his uncle Rahmat, a teacher in the Pakistani village, struggles to come to terms with the tragedy and his own place in the geopolitical circumstances of his war-torn country. A moderate whose school was destroyed by the Taliban, Rahmat has never supported the insurgents, but they take an interest in him after the deaths of his brother and nephew. As survival becomes more challenging under the constant surveillance by the drones, the tug-of-war for Rahmat's heart and soul play out on Nacer's face and in his body language. Once Rahmat makes his choice and takes a stand, Nacer commits fully to its expression.
Thousand of miles away, the cocky, confident Carlo is enduring his own internal fight in the aftermath of the boy's death. His macho code prohibits him from talking about how he feels, but guilt and anxiety are eating him up. Unlike the troops on the ground in-country, the operators are isolated in a trailer with little camaraderie or support for what they do. Wheeler effectively uses his posture and gestures to convey Carlo's decompensation, letting us see him virtually sweat and feel his angst. Essentially alone and afraid, the strongest emotional connection he has is with a figure on his radar screen, the person he has always believed to be the enemy. Questioning that presumption leaves him untethered, and Wheeler dares to go to that place with remarkable veracity.
Pattern of Life has little action and consists mainly of soliloquies, but Carlo and Rahmat describe their lives in such great detail that we are able to envision the scenarios they chronicle. There are numerous closed-circuit televisions strategically placed around the set which alternately show scrambled static or the scene in Rahmat's village in real time so that the audience can see what Carlo views from his trailer. O'Leary's pacing allows the tension to build and subside, and the combination of lighting changes and sound effects (designer Edward Young) evoke imminent drone attacks. There is a cumulative impact from the weight of all the stress on both sides of the conflict which bears down on the audience. McGough exposes the situation that most of us have probably not thought about all that much, but he seems to suggest that looking the other way is a luxury we can no longer afford.
Photo credit: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures (Lewis D. Wheeler, Nael Nacer)