Life During Wartime opens with a young salesman trying to sell a woman a security system. He touts its features, throws around technical language, but most importantly, uses statistics. Burglary rates, murder rates, rape. The exact numbers are vague, but the message is clear: You are in danger. There’s a whole world to fear.
It turns out the scene is a training exercise for Tommy (Ryan Jason Cook), the young salesman. He’s being guided by co-worker Sally (Kristin de la O) and boss Heinrich (Vic Browder), he of the shiny shirts and matching paisley tie and suspenders. As played by Cook, Tommy is eager. Not naïve exactly, but hopeful, which in this world sometimes looks like stupidity. Fear, Heinrich tells his young grasshopper, will sell anything. And Tommy wants to sell.
His first target is Gale, played by Beth Bailey. She’s nearing middle age, divorced and a mother to a teenage son taller than Tommy. As Tommy goes through his spiel, it is clear Gale is buying, but not out of fear of burglary. She looks at him hungrily, wanting him. The intimacy created by the small stage and the limited seating heightens the emotion of this moment. Bailey and Cook foster a palpable tension, the kind created when one person lays it all out on the table, waiting for the other to overcome his or her fear.
There is no literal war in Life During Wartime or any allusions to global combat. If war is conflict between a minimum of two forces that clash with no intent to compromise, then the friction of this play is between want and fear, hope and carnage. And if John Calvin is to be believed (the 16th-century French theologian’s ghost is a semi-detached narrator, played by Scott Sharot), the war in ourselves to fight against sin is hopeless, as we were born stained. And yet, we must. The virtue is in trying.
As Gale and Tommy battle to make a life together, she fighting her instincts to flee, he trying to be a good man in a bad job, they’re buffeted by the uncontrollable forces of other people’s fears. The collisions that happen, be it with a waiter at a Chinese restaurant or a wacked-out gun-toting non-customer (played by Morse Bicknell and Justin Tade, both in triple-roles), are between others who cart their own set of disappointments around. What we learn to hope, and especially learn to be afraid of, stem from those experiences. There’s little we can do to protect ourselves from the scars of other people’s pasts.
Mother Road Theatre Company’s staging of Keith Reddin’s Life During Wartime, directed by Julia Thudium, is professional: clean, focused and sometimes surprising. In the lead role, Ryan Jason Cook balances a youthful determination with ponderous emotion. His work in the first act is especially pitch-perfect, and his connection with Beth Bailey as Gale is layered and moving. Bailey is racking up the film and TV credits, and it’s exciting to watch someone parlay her craft in such a close space. When she smiles, there’s happiness battling panic, with a history behind.
Albuquerque veterans Vic Browder and Kristin de la O (the latter also in a triple-role) are weighty additions. De la O transitions between embodying three disparate women, and with close attention to body movement manages to fill the stage differently as each. Browder is required to play a character as foul as the tidy mustache he sports, and though the script makes Heinrich a bit one-note, Browder fills him out, rendering him more than a cartoon villain.
Life During Wartime succeeds when there are two people on stage, listening, reacting. The play’s one wrong note comes in one of the most climactic scenes where life-changing information is revealed. There are too many people on stage, too much said, too many layers that have to be stuffed into the small physical and temporal space. And it is one of the few times in this production where it seems as if an actor or two is saying lines, trying to get us to the next scene.
What’s surprising is not the rare point where the play doesn’t quite come together, but rather how much of it does. A saxophonist (Sam Isabel) wanders in and out, the controlled chaos of jazz punctuating the action. It’s a choice that could threaten to become too overtly theatric, but emerges as a kind of chorus that elevates the events. The same can be said of Calvin’s asides. Occasionally, the pontificating gets redundant, but it’s largely satisfying and necessary.
Chekhov’s imperative for the theatre is that nothing is incidental: a pistol on the wall in the first act must be fired by the last. Consider, then, the alarms of a security system our 21st-century guns. What we should fear, then, is that what we hoped would save us. And what of our fears? Two poems are integrated into the play, one of which is T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
“I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,” Prufrock says, “and in short, I was afraid.” It is this fear of death that makes Prufrock afraid of life, rendering his own life wasted. The only thing worth fearing, Life During Wartime seems to say, is being too afraid to live.