Is the only thing separating a war hero from a mass murderer a profound case of national delusion? Cusi Cram asks this question in her smart and engaging new play Radiance, now being presented by the LAByrinth Theatre Company at the Bank Street Theater.
The play (based largely in reality) takes place in a Los Angeles dive bar owned by Artie (Kelly AuCoin) and inhabited by his mistress/accountant May (Ana Reeder), and where Enola Gay co-pilot Captain Robert Lewis (Kohl Sudduth) has wandered in just hours before he is set to appear on a now-infamous 1955 episode of the television program This is Your Life profiling Hiroshima survivor Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto.
Lewis is hotly pursued by Waxman (the delightfully nebbishy Aaron Roman Weiner), a producer of the show who thinks that the nationally-televised meeting of these two men will begin the process of reconciliation between the United States and Japan — and that it will make for must-see TV. Lewis doesn’t want to appear on the program unless Waxman is prepared to cut him a large check. And either way, Lewis intends on being very drunk for the proceedings.
Waxman informs Lewis that the show’s sponsor, cosmetics manufacturer Hazel Bishop, will be giving a sizable donation to Reverend Tanimoto’s charity for Hiroshima burn victims, hoping to convince him. However, Lewis, disgusted by the exploitative nature of the program he is about to take part in, caustically asks if the two burn victims that accompanied Tanimoto to the show will have their nails painted as they hide behind the silhouette screen that will shield American viewers from the lasting horrors of their nuclear war machine.
Here, Cram deftly makes the point that while television audiences might have a deeply emotional experience, the ultimate goal of the medium is to sell the products advertized in the commercials. Still, she does not exclude the possibility that out of this obviously commercial venture, some good can come.
Cram’s insightful text is given a firm platform by director Suzanne Agin’s tight, well-designed production. Sound designer Daniel Kluger makes good use of the real audio of the Tanimoto episode as it plays through the bar’s crackly old radio. David Mayer gives his set an air of dusty rec room authenticity that is further aided by Nick Francone’s naturalistic lighting. (Nothing is more depressingly sobering than a bar with all the lights on.)
As Lewis, Sudduth captures a certain gruff emotional detachment that often seems typical of members of what is now commonly referred to as “the greatest generation.” More impressive is his ability to seamlessly transform into a younger, more cocksure version of his character during the flashback scene that takes place before his fateful flight over Hiroshima.
As the ditsy and desperate May, Reeder serves as the voice of American conventional wisdom when she tells Lewis that he saved millions of lives by dropping the bomb on Japan and that, “Everyone thinks that…probably even the Japanese.”
It is clear that not only is Lewis unconvinced by this notion, but so is the author, who has created a drama ripe for post-curtain debate.