“You’ll never stop laughing at those lusty heroes of Stalag 17,” declares the trailer for the 1953 Academy Award-winning Billy Wilder film of the same name. But in the American Century Theater’s version of the story, the laughs don’t come quite so easily. Director William Aitken has returned to the original text of the 1951 Broadway play written by real-life POWs Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski. Theirs is a darker portrayal of life in the German camps, where the only humor is of the gallows variety. For these men, the struggle for survival and freedom is no laughing matter.
In the Austrian POW camp Stalag 17, a dozen captured American airmen kill time by reading letters from home, making fun of the Nazi guards, and listening to news of the war on a contraband radio (all within an excellent set by Anndi Daleske). But their leisure time is interrupted by brief bursts of violence, such as the sight of would-be escapees’ bodies, left in the yard for them to contemplate. As seemingly foolproof escape plans are quickly foiled by the guards, the men realize they have a rat in their midst—and they turn on each other to figure out whom it could be. Sefton (Tony Bullock) is the odd man out—sullen, uncooperative, and friendly with the guards, he becomes suspect No. 1 in the men’s search. Lt. James Dunbar (James Finley) is deposited in the camp, and soon thereafter taken into solitary confinement for having blown up a train—a secret he shared only with the other prisoners. When the men savagely beat Sefton for the alleged snitch, he vows to clear his name and find out which soldier is actually a traitor.
Observing the men of Stalag 17 is like watching animals in captivity. They’re hindered by their confinement, but construct elaborate hierarchical systems to keep the order, even though those systems frequently fail them. Hoffy (Bill Gordon) is the barracks chief, but he finds himself at odds with barracks security chief Price (Jon Townson), while other characters, such as the clownish Harry Shapiro (Donald L. Osbourne) and Reed (Steve Lebens) pile on whomever the group suspects. The work is less about the Nazis and more about the paranoia that quickly overtakes a group, crippling its ability to problem-solve and improve its situation, which grows more dire by the minute.
The actors portray their soldiers with the requisite bravado. When testosterone is in such high levels in an enclosed space, the clash of anger and ego is inevitable, and the company keeps the volume and energy up. The rat, of course, is discovered, and it all works out a little too perfectly in an ending that just as easily could have been tragic. What’s tragic, instead, is the fate of the surviving soldiers—as light as these “lusty heroes” try to keep their moods, it’s easy to see their confinement slowly turning them mad.
Stalag 17 runs through April 17.