Like a Prison Breakout, The Timing Is Everything

In the Port Tobacco Players production of
In the Port Tobacco Players production of "Stalag 17," a post-World War II play about Allied inmates in a German POW camp, Billy Theideman, left, plays Harry Shapiro, a prankster. (Photos By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Lynn Follmer Thorne
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, September 28, 2006

In their latest production -- "Stalag 17" -- the Port Tobacco Players take on the world of spies and intrigue. There are some good performances, but uneven pacing slows this production directed by Richard Highby.

The script was written by two World War II veterans, Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, who had been prisoners in the real-life Stalag 17B near Krems, Austria. In their script, 15 American soldiers are being held in a cold, cramped German prison camp. One of them is a German spy, leaking information and thwarting escape efforts. The traitor is ultimately revealed, but not before the men turn on each other. The darkness of the story is counterbalanced by the humor with which the script presents it.

There are some good performances in this production. Mark Anderson is strong as Sefton, the accused spy. He's the outcast of the group, and Anderson makes him unlikable enough to be believable. His biting sarcasm is nicely delivered.

Some of the supporting cast members also deserve mention. Rob Leeper and Billy Theideman play a pair of pranksters, Stosh and Harry Shapiro. They perform well and evoke some of the bigger laughs. As Dunbar, John Kirby turns in a nice performance, as does Zeke Johnson, who plays Corporal Shultz. Tom Radke plays Geneva Man with a very good mix of businesslike concern. Lars Peter Highby II, the son of the director, should get special mention for his many impersonations.

But this show has weaknesses. John Van Blarcom is unconvincing as Hoffy, the barracks leader. He's not imposing, and it's hard to believe that the other soldiers would turn to him as their commander. Darren Longley also misses the mark a bit. As Price, the soldier in charge of security, he is often agitated. While Longley's lines sound tense, his body language and expressions are too relaxed to be convincing.

The real flaw of this production, at least on opening night, was the timing. Cue pickups were slow, as if the actors weren't comfortable with their lines or what came next. The slow pace dragged the show down, and with three acts, made it feel much longer.

The production fared much better on the technical side. Veteran John Merritt's set is, once again, outstanding. From the solid construction to the bullet-ridden doors, Merritt's design, coupled with Karen Kleyle's decoration, captured the essence of a sparse, barren existence. On the set, Kleyle's properties were very realistic, including a vintage phonograph and radio.

The costumes are not as authentic, with some of the soldiers clearly wearing modern chino pants and dress shoes. Dawn Bush's makeup design was good, especially when it depicted the faces of two beaten-up soldiers. Leslie Wanko's lighting design was strong, as was the sound design by Brian Donohue.

All in all, this production is a mixed bag. With the timing issues straightened out, it could be stronger, but it still can't make up for some weaker performances that are pivotal to the experience.

"Stalag 17" runs through Oct. 8. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Performances are at the Port Tobacco Playhouse, 508 E. Charles St., La Plata. General admission, $15; students and seniors, $12. For more information or reservations, visit call 301-932-6819.

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