Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association
Radio plays are nothing new; in fact, in this age of virtual reality, they are so antiquated as to seem almost quaint. One of the most well-known of this genre is the original Orson Wells version of The War of the Worlds, an adaptation of the HG Wells novel about an alien invasion that, in its first broadcast in 1939, caused a bit of a panic as some listeners were not sure they weren’t hearing a news broadcast. So it makes complete sense that Chicago’s Theatre in the Dark, a group that specializes in radio-type plays, would put on their own adaptation of the Wells story. Although it may lose something in the translation to the virtual universe—we are not, after all, sitting in total darkness with a group of other theatre-goers as the story unfolds around us—this carefully crafted and well performed A War of the Worlds (the article has been changed, perhaps as a nod to all of the other alien invasion stories out there) manages to be immediate and realistically emotional.
Since audiences are likely to have read the book or—more probably—seen one of the many film versions, director Corey Bradberry and fellow adapter Mack Gordon choose to focus not as much on the Tripods and the Martians but on the plight of one couple—the novel’s unnamed narrator, here called HG Wells, and his wife Isabel—and what happens after they are separated in the rushed escape from the initial attack. Played by Gordon and Elizabeth McCoy (who, along with the rest of the voice cast, including Robinson J. Cyprian, Ming Hudson, Alex Morales, and Lauren Izzo, craft compelling characters), the protagonists focus as much on getting back to each other as they do on the Martians, putting a lovely and very human imprint on a science fiction tale. Wells desperately tries to remain alive while hiding from the blood-feasting invaders in his home town of Kankakee (and later Bourbonnais), as Izzy and her sister find themselves running for their lives from twin tripods that have attacked Chicago.
Bradberry and Gordon maintain most of Wells’ plot elements as they cleverly transfer the 19th Century English setting to 2021 Illinois. They make use of landmarks such as Navy Pier and the DuSable Bridge as Izzy flees across the city, frantic to remain alive while wondering how her husband is faring. Using melancholy music by Ben Zucker and echoing repetitions, the adapters set the tone early and don’t let up until the invaders are dead. (Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but jeez, people.) Some decisions, such as having parts of the Wells character’s story told by a female voice reading from a journal found in the wreckage of the farmhouse in which Wells was hiding, don’t really play as effectively as they might; the listener is momentarily unsure who is telling the story. In other places, dialogue overlaps in indistinct ways meant to convey confusion or panic, but with only six voice actors in play, the goal is not always met. (This may or may not have been a function of first-night tech issues as sound designer Ross Burlingame worked bravely to balance the voices and create all sorts of sound effects.)
Some of the dialogue may feel as if it would be more at home in a soap opera or a cheesy 50s TV episode—Wells was, after all, more of a plot person—but the actors dive into every line, wringing all the emotion they can find from the words. To their credit (as well as Bradberry’s), we find ourselves caring about HG and Izzy and wondering how they will make it back to each other as much as we find ourselves hating the random man with whom HG is trapped in a basement while Martians hunt humans just outside. Radio plays may feel like a concept from the first half of last century, but Theatre in the Dark does them very well; this War of the Worlds is a wonderful entertainment for COVID times.
A War of the Worlds is now available for streaming online until Nov 21 from theatreinthedark.com. The show runs approximately 90 minutes, including a 10-minute intermission. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.