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Based on the novel by H.G. Wells as performed by Orson Wellesand the Mercury Theatre

Ever wonder what the alluringly breathy Terry Gross, host of public radio’s gauzy Fresh Air, actually looks like? I’ll tell you: like a pint-sized Sandy Duncan but with huge librarian glasses. And that’s the problem at the heart of Scena Theatre’s production of the classic radio play The War of the Worlds: It’s always disappointing to see radio personalities in person. Robert McNamara’s ambitious production painstakingly re-enacts the classic 1938 Mercury Theatre radio show that bamboozled millions of Americans into believing that Mars was attacking Earth. Onstage, seven actors rush about a makeshift studio recreating the 20-plus voices that threw America into panic, while five others, planted among the audience itself, play the range of hysterical Americans who didn’t quite get that Orson Welles and Co. were just joshing. McNamara and his cast do a fine job of setting the stage: Orson Welles (a convincing Dan Brick) gestures wildly to his fellow actors to ramp it up or tap the brakes; the perky script girl (an appealing Elizabeth Jernigan) snaps pictures of the cast midshow. And, as on any set, banality abounds; having just told the world that he’s seen a “meteorite of unusual size,” Welles chomps down on an oversize muffin. Another actor makes a yuck face after biting into a banana. The impact of the 1938 broadcast lay in the nature of radio itself; with no images to look at, a trusting American public believed the very worst. But in Scena’s production, we do have an indelible image—and it’s of a guy eating a banana. The fact that chorus members jump out of the audience to tell us how frightened they are doesn’t make up for the fact that we’re not. That’s undoubtedly McNamara’s point: It took little more than a couple of mics, some minor sound effects (expertly recreated here by David Crandall), and a troupe of talented actors to render America hysterical. It’s a message about the power of mass media that’s still relevant today. But it doesn’t change the fact that I’d much rather listen to Terry Gross than stare at her.—Mario Correa