Evolving out of the true story of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was abducted and later murdered in Pakistan, Tony Pennino's play Call it Peace is an examination not only of how one responds to total deprivation and torture but also of how the United States is increasingly becoming a victim of its own foreign policies and provincial attitudes. Utilizing a completely bare stage (Tom Harlan), the play is set in an unknown cell in the Philippines. Its inhabitants are the symbolically multicultural American journalist Rich (Michael Shen) and the young "not American" Canadian backpacker Cal (Blake Catherwood). Each has seized a space in the cell as their own and each cultivates coping mechanisms to respond to the internal and external torments concomitant with being tortured by anonymous terrorists.
Focusing on Rich's imprisonment, the play is divided into two sections. The first part explores the sensitive relationship of newcomer Rich and the increasingly deranged longtime captive backpacker. Unlike Daniel Pearl, Rich is a thirty-something Gen-Xer trying to process a fumbling romantic and professional life. Sensing Cal's desperation Rich entertains him with facts and fictions about his own life, trying to reacquaint Cal with a semblance of normalcy. In response, Cal presents to Rich an unsettling and increasingly disturbed psyche, pressing Rich to care for him while transmitting to Rich intimations of his own future. Supplementing the exchange of personal stories, they argues over American policies and the muddling of Canadian identity; they play word games with pop culture and they try to ascertain the meaning of their imprisonment.
The less engaging and talky second section focuses on Rich's captivity in total isolation and the struggle for sanity of his tortured mind. In a fight to fend off a descent into madness, Rich builds on his interactions with Cal by having metaphysical conversations with himself about his life, role-playing a performance of a comedian, interacting with an ephemeral version of the backpacker, and raking over his now defunct romantic relationship with his aloof and unsympathetic corporate hustler girlfriend Abby (Heather Pamula). As his mental pyrotechnics increasingly became entwined with visions of death, Rich faces a "last temptation" over whether to accede to the ultimate escape or find something tangible and meaningful for which to live.
While certainly timely and relevant to the current geopolitical situation, this social and psychological study played as a work-in-progress, an early draft of a script that only begins to explore its characters and issues and a production that only partially realized the journey of its protagonist and the worlds he inhabited. Ringing false from the onset, the material dealing with Rich and Abby's relationship sets the play off-track. Their extended scenes not only felt static but also fell short of being integral and heightening material of the plot.Playing somewhat fancifully with the metaphysics of the situation, the production needed to augment its study with more revelatory responses to the realities of being held hostage, including Rich's ongoing relationship with his torturers and his acclimation to the conditions of his prison cell.
Although direction (David Renwanz) was mired in sentimentality, the stagecraft of the emotive lighting design (Gavin Smith) and the eerie sound design (John DiMaggio) gave the production an authentic ambiance of menace and cold anonymity. In such times as the present, with a country consumed with fear of unknown terror and a world apprehensive about war, this production spoke to the importance of theater for stimulating thought and feeling about political acts, but its lack of development begged for a more complete discourse on its themes and a richer theatrical experience.
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Copyright 2003 Adam Cooper