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02/15/02 - Posted 6:35:55 PM from the Daily Record newsroom

William Schallert, front, plays a Methodist bishop who must relive the horrors of war in ‘The Special Prisoner.’

‘The Special Prisoner’ is a wrenching drama

By Debra Scacciaferro, Daily Record


Feb. 15 through Feb. 24

Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, 33 Green Village Road, Madison

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 Madison.

"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 touches.

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 falling.

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 Hyena."

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 regret.

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 play.

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

Debra Scacciaferro can be reached at or (973) 428-6662.

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