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Julie Danao-Salkin and James Matthew Ryan
in Savages
(Photo © Jim Baldassare)
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, first-time playwright Anne Nelson struck a chord in grieving New Yorkers (and others) with her quietly powerful drama The Guys. That play, about a fire captain who seeks help from an editor in writing eulogies for the men he lost at the World Trade Center, opened within months of the attacks, just a few blocks away from Ground Zero. For her sophomore playwriting effort, Nelson takes a look further back in time: Savages examines the true-life case of Major Littleton Waller (James Matthew Ryan), a Marine who in 1902 was court-martialed and tried for war crimes during the Philippine-American war. Unfortunately, the new play is far less compelling than its predecessor.

The historical material that Nelson is working with is fascinating. If nothing else, her play calls attention to a military conflict that most Americans have either forgotten or were never aware of in the first place: The U.S. went into the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, ostensibly to liberate the country from Spanish rule, but our country set up its own colonial government following the 1898 treaty that ended the conflict and thereafter faced resistance from the native Filipinos, who fought the Americans for many of the same reasons that they fought the Spaniards.

Savages is dragged down by too much exposition, and the characters aren't fleshed out sufficiently to be anything more than mouthpieces for particular points of view. Waller is a conflicted soldier who knows that he's committed some questionable deeds but is also aware that they're nowhere near as bad as those perpetrated by some of his superiors. General Chaffee (Jim Howard) seeks to stem the bad P.R. that the military's actions have generated. Corporal Hanley (Brett Holland) is a naïve young recruit newly arrived in the Philippines, and Maridol Amaya (Julie Danao-Salkin) is a native Filipina nurse brought in to care for the ailing Waller.

Both Waller and Chaffee are historical figures; Nelson has raided historical transcripts and incorporated actual words that they spoke into the play's dialogue. This may account for some of the stiltedness of the language, but the author's fictional creations, Hanley and Maridol, are not written with much more depth.

Holland slides into near-caricature in his portrayal of Corporal Hanley, but the Oklahoma boy is written as somewhat slow-witted, so it's unclear how much of his stereotypical demeanor is the actor's fault. Ryan, who speaks in a soft Virginian dialect, endows Waller with a quiet dignity, while Howard's Chaffee seems to be all bluster with no meaning behind his words. Danao-Salkin fares best in the cast, presenting the closest thing to a fully rounded character. Often, this is accomplished through Maridol's silent reactions to the other characters' discussion of the Filipino "savages" in her presence.

Chris Jorie's direction is rather static, and the pacing often drags to such a degree that the intermissionless, 90-minute show seems much longer. The design work of Lauren Helpern (set), Betsy Adams (lighting), Rebecca J. Bernstein (costumes), and Jill BC DuBoff (sound) is serviceable but not particularly distinctive.

The main problem that Nelson faced in writing this play was how to present the complex issues surrounding the Philippine-American War and, by extension, other conflicts -- including, of course, the current situation in Iraq. The massacre of Balangiga, during which Filipino insurgents used subterfuge (read: terrorist tactics) to ambush a garrison of American soldiers, is invoked; so are the "kill and burn" reprisals that the army inflicted upon both rebels and civilians in retribution. Savages asks the audience to consider the ethics of warfare, to listen to horrific descriptions of enemy attacks, and to question whether the torture or execution of prisoners is ever acceptable, but these issues are dealt with in such a lackluster way that many theatergoers simply won't care.

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