02/15/02 - Posted 6:35:55 PM
from the Daily Record newsroom
Schallert, front, plays a Methodist bishop who must
relive the horrors of war in ‘The Special
‘The Special Prisoner’ is a wrenching drama
By Debra Scacciaferro, Daily Record
"THE SPECIAL PRISONER"
Feb. 15 through Feb. 24
Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, 33 Green Village Road,
Tickets $20 and $18
Call (973) 514-1787
The sweet strains of a Japanese shamisen and the unfurling
of a tatami mat on a simple stage give a deceptively quiet
start to the emotionally brutal tale of war that debuted on
the bare stage of Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey in
"The Special Prisoner," adapted by the director James
Glossman from a novel by PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer, is an
emotionally riveting parable of how war brutalizes everyone it
And William Schallert’s moving performance as retired
Bishop John Quincy Watson, former Special Prisoner in a WWII
Japanese POW camp, reveals how futile it is to think that the
horrors of war can be easily put to rest once the bombs stop
Watson’s dilemma starts when the bishop locks eyes with a
man he could swear was the brutal prison interrogator and
torturer of POW camp Sengei 4 in Japan 55 years earlier. This
chance encounter kicks him back into the past, as a downed
bomber pilot who is the most hated of all for daring to set
fire to the sacred homeland of Japan. And it propels him
forward, on an obsessive quest to find this man known as "The
Sitting there, watching "The Special Prisoner," it seemed
to me that the scars of war are even embedded on the
generations born long after. In Act 2, during a particular
moment when a Japanese woman recounts the horror of seeing her
sister burned to death by incendiary bombs dropped by American
pilots, I felt a connection, an empathy, an outrage, and a
A moment later, listening as a lawyer questions the same
woman comparing Japanese occupation to American occupation of
Japan after its surrender — "Were you raped?" "No."
"Tortured?" "No." "Bayonetted?" "No." "Water tortured?" "No."
— and so on down the list of what Japanese soldiers had done
in Nanking, the Philippines, and to captured American fliers
like Watson, I felt a sudden rise of patriotism laced with
sharp anger at this same woman. This for a war that happened
more than 10 years before I was born.
For what "The Special Prisoner" does quite well is to pose
one of the toughest questions humans must grapple with: Under
what circumstances do we all have the capacity to do evil?
Be forewarned. This play is strong medicine. Many of the
scenes and language about the documented horrors the Americans
endured in these prison camps are graphic and vivid, although
there is no nudity or blood. But the incidents, recalled by
Watson and told stoically by the narrator, are in some ways as
hard to sit through as any war film. And because the theater
is so tiny, and because Glossman’s direction is so intimate
and intense, it sometimes feels as if you are a prisoner
yourself, watching in horror from the sidelines.
Schallert, who is 79, seemed a bit shaky on opening night
in the swirling, quick moving first act, which swiftly moves
in and out of the present and past through a multitude of
costume changes, sound effects and lights. But by the end,
this veteran stage and television actor had given a compelling
and eloquent performance as a fundamentally decent man who
grapples with his own war deeds, and the long-buried outrage
against his old tormentor. Ironically, it happens when he is
legitimately seeking answers and some kind of closure to the
nature of evil.
The supporting cast of three is very good, able to portray
20-odd characters throughout the course of the play. Sunnie
Brown, the narrator, is stunning in her previously mentioned
role of Mrs. Tashimoto on the witness stand, and versatile and
convincing enough to play a young male lawyer, a prisoner and
Watson’s war bride.
Jim Yue has equally startling moments as the proud and
brutal Tashimoto prison interrogator, as the dignified old
Tashimoto, who denies being at Sengei 4, and as the reassuring
old Singapore man who writes a letter to Watson revealing what
he knows about Tashimoto’s past.
And Paul Murphy (who has performed at Luna Stage in
Montclair) turns in a wonderful, ebullient performance in his
main role as fellow prisoner Henry Howell, the irascible and
irreverent fighter pilot who never relents in his attempts to
rally his fellow prisoners, nor contain his deep hatred for
the Japanese prison guard ever after.
Justine Chen’s original shamisen score and sound cues,
which she plays on stage, help to bridge the gap between the
past and the present in this complicated story. So does the
effective but simple lighting effects, bathing scenes in a red
light, or using flashes to evoke the physical blows of a cane,
gun or sword on the prisoners.
The only problems with the play are in the adaptation’s
internal structure, which Glossman conceived as a Japanese Noh
drama, with fast scene changes and a small cast.
Another supporting actor or two may have alleviated some of
the very real confusion of audience members who had a hard
time distinguishing, for instance, between Yue’s old
Tashimoto, and the elderly Singapore former prison slave who
writes a very crucial piece of information to Watson in Act 2,
after his trial. So pay attention here, if you go.
Another actor might have imparted a smoother feel to the
first scenes, where the actors literally created a dozen
airport and hotel characters in the space of a few minutes.
And the ending, despite its poetic resonance, was a bit
jarring as composer Chen, who never moved from her spot on the
stage where she played the shamisen live, stepped out
inexplicably to close the show. More symmetry and resonance
would have been achieved using the narrator, who opens the
But these are minor flaws. Lehrer, who came to see the show
on opening night, expressed his pleasure with the production
as having captured the essence of his novel, and its haunting
questions about human nature and the nature of war.
"You won’t find anything in the book that isn’t right here
in this play," he told me. And that was high praise indeed.
Performances of "The Special Prisoner" run Thursdays
through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Sundays at 3
p.m. and Saturday and Feb. 23 at 2 p.m. Playwrights Theatre is
located at 33 Green Village Road in Madison. For more
information, call (973) 514-1787 or visit the Web site at