Friday, November 27, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of New Light Theater Project's production of In The Soundless Awe at Access Theater by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Jayme McGhan & Andy Pederson's In The Soundless Awe, produced by New Light Theater Project in conjunction with Access Theater, was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

In The Soundless Awe
Written by Jayme McGhan & Andy Pederson
Directed by Sarah Norris
Choreographer: Corrie Blissit
Scenic & Props Designer: Brian Dudkiewicz
Costume Designer: Genevieve V. Beller
Lighting Designer: Michael O'Connor
Sound Design: Andy Evan Cohen
Projections Designer: Yuriy Pavlish
Access Theater
380 Broadway
New York, New York 10013
Reviewed 11/22/15  

"Don't Panic! Don't Give Up Hope! The Navy knows where you are and is searching for you," believed the 896 original survivors of the USS Indianapolis after it was torpedoed by the Imperial Japanese Navy Submarine I-58, under the command of Mochitsura Hashimoto. The sinking of the USS Indianapolis, under the command of Captain Charles B. McVay III, led to the greatest single loss of life at sea in the history of the United States Navy. The ship left Pearl Harbor on July 19, 1945 on a secret mission to Tinian island carrying parts and the enriched uranium for the atomic bomb Little Boy, which would be dropped on Hiroshima. After completing the mission and stopping at Guam, it set off toward Leyte on July 28, 1945 with 1,196 crewmen aboard. The Japanese struck the ship with two Type 95 torpedoes, causing massive damage. Twelve minutes later, the ship rolled completely over, then her stern rose into the air, and she plunged down. 300 crewmen went down with the ship. With few lifeboats and many without life jackets, the remainder of the crew was set adrift.

The USS Indianapolis sent out three distress calls before sinking. Although the Navy initially denied it, the ultimate release of classified records shows three stations received the signals; however none acted upon them. One commander was drunk, another had ordered his men not to disturb him and a third thought it was a Japanese trap. As a result, the Navy only learned of the ship's sinking when survivors were spotted on August 2, 1945 by the PV-1 Ventura flown by Lt. Wilbur "Chuck" Gwinn and co-pilot Lt. Warren Colwell. Only 321 men came out of the water alive; 317 ultimately survived. 579 seamen died from exposure, dehydration, starvation, saltwater poisoning and shark attacks. Captain McVay survived but was court-martialed and convicted of "hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag," even though the Japanese commander testified that zigzagging would have made no difference. Captain McVay was also denied an escort ship, told the route was safe, and had a ship that was not equipped with sonar. The guilt heaped on McVay's shoulders mounted until he committed suicide in 1968. In October 2000, the United States Congress passed a resolution that Captain McVay's record should state "he is exonerated for the loss of the Indianapolis." President Bill Clinton signed the resolution and in July 2001, the Secretary of the Navy ordered McVay's record cleared of all wrongdoing.

The play is set in 1968, shortly before Captain McVay takes his own life. He has meticulously responded to every letter he has received from supporters and from those family members who continued to personally blame him for the loss of their loved ones. Most of the action is revealed in the form of one last nightmare he has regarding the attack, his time in the sea waiting for rescue, his court-martial, and death, portrayed throughout in the form of a beautiful siren. This moving, captivating, historical drama featured non-traditional casting for no apparent reason. However, in this circumstance, a gender equal crew did not detract from the enjoyment of the audience even though it was historically inaccurate. Still, all of the members of this ensemble cast  (Amanda Berry, Gregory James Cohan, Eric Cotti, Bethany Geraghty, Brandon Jones & Janae Mitchell) gave unforgettable, engrossing performances that made a significant contribution to the success of this production. Hallie Wage did a fine job playing the Gray Lady everyone wished to avoid, and Leo Farley was perfectly adequate in the small role of Captain McVay circa 1968. 

Chris Kipiniak remained remarkably calm as the encouraging voice of reason while crew members were hurling blame and accusations at one another. I believe the playwrights missed the opportunity to delve further into the relationship Captain McVay had with his men. Did they respect him as a leader or view him as someone who thought he was better than the average guy? I couldn't tell from the script. However, I am sure some of the survivors wrote about their relationship with Captain McVay, and I certainly had an interest in knowing. Finally, there is the issue of the miniature soldier Captain McVay's father gave him when he was a child. In the play, we see his father snatching it from his son upon being commissioned in the Navy telling him a true leader doesn't rely on luck or on memories for inspiration. We see his father throw away the keepsake, but in reality, a miniature soldier was found in Captain McVay's clutched hand after he committed suicide. Was that the same soldier? If so, what did it symbolize in this context? The script doesn't address the issue. There was also no water in the one-foot deep set box created to symbolize the ocean the seamen were adrift in 500 miles Southeast of Toyko in the Pacific Ocean. I am not certain whether water would have helped or hurt the effect trying to be created. However, I am sure the projection screen could have been better utilized to help the audience feel as if they were actually in the ocean with the scattered, stranded, seamen.    

In The Soundless Awe was originally produced at Concordia University and at the Kennedy Center ACTF Festival. This production at Access Theater is its New York City Premiere. The play is a titanic tale of great substance and emotional impact. There are lighter moments such as when the sailors waiting to be rescued decide to play the game "I Spy" and Captain McVay starts off by saying "I spy something that begins with the letter W." On the other hand, you will feel emotionally distraught when witnessing one sailor commit suicide and others recalling screams heard in the middle of the night presumably due to shark attacks. You will also find it very difficult not to cry when one of Captain McVay's response letters is read aloud near the end of the play. This utterly gripping drama is one you should not miss. I highly recommend it!

Performances run through December 12, 2015 at Access Theater. Tickets cost only $10.00-$15.00 if purchased in advance, and $18.00 if bought at the door. Access Theater is located on the 4th Floor of the building located at 380 Broadway in Manhattan. I learned the hard way that an elevator is available to take you up. Look for the sign I am told is there as you enter the building. For more information and for reservations, visit!soundless-awe/cbs2 

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