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Real Life in a Stalag

American Century Theater Revives 1951 Play

Six years after the end of World War II, America was in no mood to makejokes about life in a Nazi prisoner of war camp. The Broadway play written by two former POW’s painted a serious and bleak picture of what it was like for the 4,000 or so American servicemen held in the Nazi’s Stalag 17B in eastern Austria.

The American Century Theater is reviving the play in all of its original grittiness, avoiding some of the attempts to lighten the impact that the subsequent film adopted and coming nowhere near the comic flippancy that became the basis for the television series “Hogan’s Heroes.” Playing at Theatre Two in the Gunston Arts Center through April 17, the production does its best to let the audience see the slice of reality created by authors who had actually lived through the harrowing experience.

“Stalag 17” takes place during the last Christmas of the war, a time when it was becoming clear to those outside the walls of the prison camp that the Allies would, in fact, prevail. But inside the prison, news was hard to come by and confidence was as much bravado as belief. Newly arrived prisoners would have some word, but uncertainty was inescapable.

A stalag was a POW camp for enlisted rank prisoners, and as a result, the cast of characters sharing a barracks in this play have developed their own hierarchy with a designated barracks leader and a security chief.

Jon Townson plays the prisoner serving as security chief — a prisoner with a very personal approach to survival. Townson manages to do some pretty despicable things without becoming a complete stereotype. Instead, his motivation is more complex and that keeps him an intriguing character right up to the harrowing conclusion.

Tony Bullock has the role of a prisoner not held in particularly high regard by his companions, but who has a sense of honor and duty that drives the final events of the play. Bullock takes full advantage of the contrasting elements in his character, one of the best formed in the script. He is at times caustic and at others he is alternately light and brooding but he constantly avoids oversimplification.

Bullock also benefits from a well designed makeup after a brutal attack. There is no credit for makeup design in the program so it is possible he came up with the bruises and cuts on his own. However it happened, it is an important factor in the audience’s acceptance of the play in a small black box theater where no seat is more than six rows from the stage, phony-looking makeup would be a distraction all evening long.

Bill Gordon is the designated barracks chief and shows the strain of leadership well while the supporting roles of prisoners are each fairly well defined. The most touching is the performance by David Olmsted as a prisoner withdrawn into near catatonia by the mistreatment he has been handed by his captors. He spends much of his time with a wooden flute on which he only plays a single note.

The captors are represented by Karl Bittner, ramrod stiff and emotionless as an SS captain who can inflict pain without restraint, and Hans Dettmar, who puts his own spin on the role of the less doctrinaire corporal who can play the game of cat and mouse with the captives. His character’s name? Shultz. But it is Corporal Shultz, not the bumbling Sergeant Shultz which actor John Banner made famous in six seasons on “Hogan’s Heroes” constantly declaiming “I know nothing — NOTHING!”

Director William Aitken takes a very literal approach to staging the play, sticking closely to the published script and keeping embellishments to a minimum, which, given the strength of the script, is a wise choice. His most obvious touch is the near slow-motion pace that he has his cast assume shifting to new positions during semi blackouts between scenes. It gives a sense of seriousness to the shift that works well.

Anndi Daleske provides a purposely dull and drab set spreading the long wall of the barracks in front of the audience. Four sets of bunk beds without mattresses line the wooden wall with laundry hanging between the bunks and letters from home stuck on the wall. The dark dirtiness of the locale is matched by period costumes from Rip Claussen that reenforce the feel.

Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland and writes about theater for a number of national magazines. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.