Perhaps the wisest words ever uttered by Franklin D. Roosevelt were "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In today's culture, we could sure use a dose of that idiom, straight down the gullet without a sugary chaser.
In the play by Keith Reddin, Life During Wartime, which opened last weekend at UNM's Theatre X, fear isn't just something to be afraid of, it’s a livelihood. Tommy and his eager boss, Heinrich, are in the home security business. And, boy, business is good.
Life During Wartime opens with a gospel choir singing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" from high in the rafters—perhaps from Heaven itself—settling a ominous fog onto the scene. As the choir completes its last hallelujah, Sally (Becka Ross) steps out of the grayness of the church on one side of the stage and into a homey space on the other. Dressed in a dapper baby-blue suit, Heinrich (Andrew Pollock) gives her a sales pitch full of violence, statistics and histrionics about why she should purchase the latest in home security technology. "Lets face it, the world is a dangerous place," he tells her, adding to the heavy air. Sally agrees without question and Heinrich turns to his young salesman, Tommy (Brandon Weaver), for whom the demonstration was staged. "Fear sells itself," Heinrich tells Tommy. And with that, Tommy's off to sell fear—um, security.
On his first house call, Tommy meets newly single mother Gale (Rachael Shapiro) and makes an easy sale as she’s noticeably smitten by his sales pitch and his smile. The relationship soon moves from the couch to the bedroom even though Gale is older than Tommy by some years (he's 25, she has a 16-year-old son). Age doesn't matter to Tommy, though his worry that Gale's kid will walk in on them doesn't help. The intimate encounters continue and Tommy and Gale find themselves emotionally attached. Through this relationship, they begin to discover their hopes and desires, while Tommy concurrently discovers what it really means to be in the business of fear.
The palpable haze continues to thicken throughout the first act then disappears when the reality of Tommy's professional life impedes on his and Gale's personal one. Tommy must decide where his career is headed and what to do when fear becomes more than a catchphrase.
The major failures in Life During Wartime come directly from the script, which at times is bludgeonly moralistic and transparent. Where the title stems from is a mystery, and its comparison to Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross is undeniable. But from this so-so script, the cast of Life have extracted great moments.
Throughout the entire play, a man with crazy hair dressed in a red clergy robe sits staring down at the stage or scribbling in his book—even while the audience is being seated before the show and during intermission. The man is John Calvin (yes, the Protestant reformer and famed theologian), played by Michael Saxton. Calvin comes into the play through vignettes sprinkled between scenes where he delivers sermon-like speeches about original sin, violence and modern television. Saxton's precise timing and willingness to take Calvin into the realm of crazy make for one of the most solid performances in the production. Fitting, since Calvin's omnipresence is the strongest element Reddin wrote into Life During Wartime.
But that is not to distract from the accomplishments of the other cast members. Life During Wartime is teeming with talent from UNM's Department of Theatre and Dance. Brandon Weaver takes the naive Tommy through total bliss and absolute hell, letting the audience see his soul tarnish with every blow. And the chemistry he and Rachael Shapiro capture on the stage creates a pleasant discomfort among the audience, as if watching an exchange meant to be private. Expect to see both of their faces on the stage more often.
The most outstanding performances come in unsuspecting places: Andrew Pollock's stereotypical salesman who's raving mad with the drive for pleasure, Katy Bowen's waiter who makes even the egomaniacal Heinrich seem small, Alex Hetlinger's gun-toting homeowner and James Blessing's perfect stranger who comes unravelled when someone willing lends him an ear. Throughout, Life During Wartime is packed with funny and nerve-racking interactions, and it’s the cast—aided by the outstanding direction of Kristen Loree and a well-designed set—that make it worth waiting for the fog to lift.