"Peacekeeper," through June 30, presented by the Northwest Passage Theater at the Seattle Public Theater, 915 E. Pine St.; Thursday through Sunday at 8 p.m.; $7; 324-4305. --------------------------
You walk up three flights of stairs, enter a small room with no stage, climb into a chair on risers, and stare at a black cloth draped over the wall in front of you.
What will happen? Will the seven actors listed in the program from the Northwest Passage Theater transform that empty space into a new - and believable - reality? Will they teach you something? Make you feel anything? In short, will theater happen?
Those questions arise before any play, but are particularly poignant in the case of fringe theaters, where the product is new and the tools of illusion are few.
The answers, happily, in the case of Northwest Passage Theater's first-rate new production of Keith Reddin's "Peacekeeper," are yes, maybe, and yes, in that order. Yes, these seven players convincingly conjure the punishing culture of denial at a nuclear-missile silo in Nebraska.
And yes, they make you feel plenty about the way this repressed, paranoid culture destroys lives. As for learning anything - a burden that rests ultimately with playwright Reddin - only a "maybe." Though sturdily crafted and emotionally on the money, "Peacekeeper" is a one-dimensional exercise in realism - and a predictably plotted and intellectually unsurprising one, at that.
The players outshine the material. David Hickey brings to life the part of a bright, young "stand-up" lieutenant with a straight back, confident smirk and a streak of brooding self-doubt, who desperately wants to make the rank of captain. By day, Hickey and his quirky fellow officer, Dave Clapper, sit in a bunker, 200 feet underground, hoping they will never have to do what they have been programmed to do - launch a nuclear missile. By night, they kick back beer and swap stories.
Hickey is unfaithful to his homebound wife, Courtney Stevens, who is coming to the realization that her husband is married to his "duty." Hickey's boyish commanding officer, played by Patrick Carey, also neglects his wife, but has learned to escape the sordid reality of his job by conducting Wagner operas from an easy chair. His sarcastic, alcoholic wife, played by Terie May, is a tramp. Rob Leatherman and LLyssa Holland play two other lieutenants.
The story unfolds during an embarrassing barbecue thrown by the inept and apologetic commanding officer, whose wife applies herself to Hickey, and through a series of terse scenes in the silo between Hickey and Clapper. When the chips are down, Hickey gets the worst of it, and it is the play's achievement that one feels desperately for him, despite his transgressions.
That said, "Peacekeeper" neither illuminates the young lieutenant's character nor indicts the destructive circumstances that destroy him, which leads one to wonder what Reddin means to say, beyond the passive summary offered by the uxorious Carey - "things just happen, I guess."
Others seem less puzzled. Under its original title, "Nebraska," Reddin's play won the San Diego Drama Critics Award for Best Play of 1989. Like Reddin, the members of the NPT are graduates of the theater program at Northwestern University, where they presented "Talk Radio" in 1990, then decided to try their luck in Seattle. They are a bright and welcome addition to the area and deserve to be heard.
Director David Hollander brings the best out of his players and, doing double duty as sound designer, makes creative use of music and jet fighter sounds, though he might have staged the barbecue scene more actively.