It could be exciting to see a play about Major Littleton Waller, a marine in the Philippine-American War who was court-martialed in 1902 for allowing the unwarranted execution of several prisoners. But that play would need to make history active by turning the events of Waller’s life into something more than anecdotal chatter. In other words, it would need to be the opposite of “Savages.”
The latest work from Anne Nelson, author of post-9/11 drama “The Guys,” “Savages” has the admirable intention of trying to enlighten auds about a fascinating time in American history, but it is the most stagnant kind of “memory play.” Characters talk and talk about the past but are given no goals or conflicts to move them through the present moment.
A case in point is the Major himself. From the moment he arrives, Waller (James Matthew Ryan) lists around the set — a dilapidated hut in Manila — alternately sleeping off his malaria; insulting his young admirer, Corporal Hanley (Brett Holland); or asking his nurse, Maridol (Julie Danao-Salkin), for soup.
He’s so disengaged from the other characters that when he reveals the truth about his infamous execution order — arguably the crux of the story — he has to interrupt a scene in progress. His revelation can’t arise naturally from the plot, because Nelson gives him no compelling reason to speak. She just inserts his monologue as though she had arbitrarily decided it was time.
Maridol and Hanley are equally aimless, but more pedantically so. Not based in history, these characters exist to teach earnest lessons on cultural misunderstanding. The Texan soldier, you see, mistrusts Catholicism, and the native lady marvels that Americans don’t eat coconuts. But Nelson simply catalogs these differences, never shaping them into an incisive dramatic argument.
It’s hard to imagine how director Chris Jorie could have injected more depth into a script this inert. He could, however, have moved things along. Time creeps by as pauses between lines grow larger, and even though sound designer Jill BC DuBoff provides incidental music, the production’s dominant sound is awkward silence.
Out of this morass, Ryan and Danao-Salkin at least try to bring detail to their roles. Both thesps are especially attentive listeners, letting their silent reactions imply deep feeling about the endless back-stories being recited.
If only the audience could learn what keeps these actors interested. It might help the history in “Savages” come alive.