The stage version of Billy Wilder's 1953 film Stalag 17 is no mere nostalgia vehicle. That might be because the original Broadway script wasn't hammered out in the current climate that glorifies all things Allied. Stalag 17 was written by the war's actual participants rather than by their starry-eyed descendants, who, bereft of conditions that call for military honor or sacrifice, seem to have developed a lust for living vicariously through their parents' and grandparents' exploits.
This darkly funny psychological drama of American POWs held in a German prison camp in World War II was brought to Broadway in 1951 by POWs Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski. While there's no coincidence in the timing—the play runs between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July—this fine production avoids propagandistic impulses, perfectly capturing the human dimension of war. It's a wonderful antidote to Pearl Harbor.
While Stalag 17 does a great job conveying the essence of imprisonment (the slowness of time; the chiding, putdown humor of inmates; the craving for news from outside; the hierarchies and rituals that provide structure), it's more than a prisoner-of-war saga. It's a probing examination of the eternal American struggle between the group and the individual: How much of ourselves are we willing to surrender in order to belong? How dangerous is it to be a loner in times of great adversity?
Ultimately, the play serves as a tribute to the great American loner, the guy who follows his own path and often pays the price in social isolation—but who invariably gets the girl at the end, even if there's no girl at this play's end; America had to wait for the goofy Hogan's Heroesfor that.
The play's setup is simple: in its taut opening moments, two guards gun down two POW escapees. The other inmates knew an escape was planned—and also know that someone among them tipped off the authorities.
Even opening-night dialogue stumbles didn't derail the dramatic momentum of Brian Newell's sharp, energetic direction. Steve Guilmette's performance as Sergeant Sefton, who becomes the focal point of the inmates' fears of a traitor in their midst, hits all the right notes. He's backed by varied, well-crafted and humorous turns as fellow POWs by K.C. Mercer, Frank Tryon, Brian Kojac, Joe Hufferd, Chris Allison and David De Simone. The German guards are equally well-sculpted, led by Matt Freeman and Alex DeVorak.
The production's visual elements, which include Jim Book and Newell's impressive set and lighting designs, produce the play's powerfully claustrophobic feeling. Rather than looking at the action through the medium of camera and screen, this production—with its harsh searchlights sweeping the prison yard and the smell of gunpowder in the air—puts us in the action. It makes for a memorable and intimate theater experience, and one that makes you appreciate deferments.
Stalag 17 at Stages, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-4484. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through July 7. $15.
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