American Blues Theatre

My roommate worked on a psychological study of distressed marriages. The researchers interviewed couples in both healthy and failing marriages. In each case, they found that commitment takes its toll; it causes married persons to give up some of themselves and build walls against certain emotions. The difference between happy and unhappy marriages lies in how well the individuals deal with this confinement.

Keith Reddin, in his play Peacekeeper, uses the metaphor of men in a missile silo to examine the effects of confinement on military duty and on the institution of marriage. He asks, what is the cost of keeping the peace, and is peace worth it?

Reddin's story involves a young, married lieutenant, Dean Swift, who has just been transferred to a Nebraska missile silo. Reddin places Swift and his wife between two very different couples. On one side is his new commanding officer, Major Jack Gurney, who tries to humanize his unit's situation with attempts at friendship and warmth. For his trouble, Gurney is secretly ridiculed by the men and emasculated by his wife. On the other side are Swift's partner, Lieutenant Henry Fielding, and the officer he's dating, Lieutenant Kim Newman: their idea of love consists of hot sex, major quantities of drugs, and unlimited use of the VCR. Floating among them all is nerdy Lieutenant Ted Barnes. Barnes is the only one with no attachments. He has no girl and he does not work in the silos. He is a misfit, and the other characters feel themselves his superior. Yet Barnes is oblivious to their scorn, and he is the only one in the play who erects no barriers.

During the course of the play, Swift begins to question his duty, both in his job and in his marriage. He reveals his doubts to Fielding, who scoffs at Swift's idealistic notion that married people can change for each other--and suggests that if Swift is actually capable of this he should bill himself as a freak, a "mutant, genetically altered husband." When Swift begins to wonder if Fielding would really shoot him if Swift refused to perform his duty in the silo and turn his key, Fielding gets angry and suspicious. Eventually, all the other characters are threatened by Swift's humanization, and one of them is destroyed.

Through it ail, Reddin demonstrates that the key to survival within an institution is dehumanization and impersonality. To keep the peace means to swallow one's pride--to "eat shit," as Carol Gurney harshly puts it--and become less than oneself. "You're better than that," Mrs. Gurney tells her husband as she tries to persuade him to leave the military. "You're better than them."

It's quite a disturbing outlook on marriage in our society, and a very disturbing view of the men in the missile silo. They're there as a human safeguard against computer error, but Reddin seems to be saying that in order to survive in such confinement, a human being must become like a computer.

American Blues Theatre handles every aspect of its production with aplomb. Set designer Linda Buchanan's sliding wall panels easily transform the tiny space from an expansive prairie landscape to the claustrophobic interior of the silo. Buchanan also clearly delineates two separate apartments and an office. Lighting designer Robert Christen creates shifts of mood and place with utmost simplicity. He is particularly effective in the silo scenes, creating an illusion of slickness and technology without doing anything flashy. Laura Cunningham's costumes are perfectly apt; indeed, Lieutenant Kim Newman's first costume is so telling of her character that the audience began laughing as she entered.

But most stunning of all is Rob Milburn's sound design, punctuated with roaring jet noises that seem to shake the theater. His metallic thumps before each scene in the silo intensify the sensation of confinement, and the operatic arias between scenes underline the grander scope of the play and act as counterpoint to the deadening of spirit that is going on within the scenes.

The cast is one of the most uniformly talented bunch of actors that I've seen on a Chicago stage. Jeremy Piven conveys both the youthful charm and cynical undercurrents of Lieutenant Swift, while Anna Gunn transforms herself before our eyes from a mousy housewife into a fiery betrayed lover. Kate Buddeke and Jim Learning slide a little toward stereotypes as the jaded lieutenants Fielding and Newman, but they maintain enough humanity to make it impossible to condemn them. As Ted Barnes, Rick Cleveland bounces happily around stage, secure in his naivete.

But the two who are completely captivating are B.J. Jones as Major Jack Gurney and Morgan McCabe as his unhappy but caring wife Carol. McCabe is sultry and sexy, and carries us with her through her transformation from emasculating seductress to the true heroine of the play, the only one who manages to escape with her individuality intact. She allows us to see the honest love for her husband that overrides her physical betrayals. Jones is perfectly paired as her struggling husband, whose pain is always evident behind his cheery front. When Gurney says to Carol, "I love you. Get the hell out of here," the truth and force that Gurney brings to the moment make it shattering to watch.

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