Stages

Review: Invasion from Mars, A War of the Worlds Radio Play by Theatre in the Dark—Memories of 1938

A War of the Worlds in rehearsal. Clockwise from upper left: Mack Gordon (HG Wells and others, co-adapter), Corey Bradberry (director/stage manager), Elizabeth McCoy (Isabel Wells and others), Alex Morales (Dennis and others), Ming Hudson (Professor and others).

The Chicago company Theatre in the Dark is offering a new adaptation of H. G. Wells’ classic 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds, as a live 90-minute virtual audio drama and just in time for Halloween. Each performance is being broadcast with a cast in Chicago, Vancouver and New Orleans in real time. The company’s website recommends that listeners “Create a dark cozy space, turn off your screen, and crank up your speakers.” Welcome advice. They further suggest that folks enjoy a Tequila Old-Fashioned (the recipe appears on their website).

The audio-only broadcast was co-adapted by company founders Corey Bradberry and Mack Gordon (Gordon also does double duty as an actor) and directed by Bradberry with the setting moved from 1890s England to 21st century Chicago and a farmhouse in Kankakee as well as slightly altering the title, changing “The” to “A.”

But the narrative largely follows the arc of Wells’ novel. A series of meteors crash into the countryside 70 miles outside of Chicago. During much of the story the narrator, H. G. Wells (Gordon), who is also a scientific journalist, and his wife Isabel “Izzy” Wells (Elizabeth McCoy) are separated. In a nod—and a nice touch—to the new setting, the broadcast opens with an excerpt from Carl Sandburg’s classic poem “Chicago” and takes place in October 2021 when Mars “is the closest it comes to earth.”

The Red Planet has fascinated people for centuries. Writers and filmmakers, in particular, have turned consistently to Mars for inspiration from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950), Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1952), Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), Fredric Brown’s comic novel Martians, Go Home (1955), and up to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (1992–1996). And of course there have been a slew of Martian movies from B-flicks (The Angry Red Planet in 1959) to classy blockbusters (Ridley Scott’s The Martian in 2015).

From 1912 to 1943, Oak Park native Edgar Rice Burroughs published his popular pulp fiction Barsoom (“Barsoom” being Martian for Mars) series, which featured a 19th century Confederate veteran John Carter who is somehow transported from Earth to a dying Mars. In the fifth book of the series, The Chessmen of Mars, Burroughs even described a variation of chess called Jetan, or Martian chess, and gave instructions how to play it (full disclosure: as a teen, I played the game with my brother on a primitive, homemade chess set). In 1962, the chewing gum and candy company Topps, released their “Mars Attacks” trading cards, which later inspired Tim Burton’s big-budget satire of the same name (although he inserted an exclamation point after the title). And, in 1971, David Bowie released his surreal “Life on Mars.”

So Mars—both the fictional Mars and the scientific Mars––speaks to people from all walks of life and from all ages. But probably the most enduring and influential novel about Mars is Wells’ famous novel, which was made into a movie in 1953, set in California, and then, in 2005, by Steven Spielberg, set in New Jersey.

The iconic broadcast of The War of the Worlds came on Halloween eve 1938, when a wunderkind with a similar surname, Orson Welles, and his Mercury Theatre troupe presented a radio dramatization of Wells’ Martian invasion tale on the CBS radio network. The public reaction to Welles’ radio broadcast was swift and devastating. Of the more than 6 million people who listened that Halloween eve, 1.7 million believed the story to be true and as many as 1.2 million panicked, according to a study conducted by Princeton professor Hadley Cantril.

People ran into the streets or jumped into their cars, trying to escape to nowhere in particular. Phone banks were swamped. One person called the switchboard at CBS asking the operator if the world was coming to an end, prompting the person on the other end to answer, “I’m sorry, we haven’t that information here.” In Pittsburgh, a man returned home to find his wife holding a bottle of poison (“I’d rather die like this than like that,” she told him).

After it was all over, Welles apologized for the turmoil he inadvertently caused. It was all meant to be good, if scary, fun, a radio version, said Welles at the time, of “dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying ‘Boo!’”

Theatre in the Dark’s production offers listeners a mostly enjoyable evening at home. Gordon is fine in the role of Wells, the Everyman narrator, and McCoy is touching as Izzy. Ben Zucker’s swirling score is appropriately spooky, childlike, and otherworldly with elements of Gustav Holst and Philip Glass and even a touch of The Phantom of the Opera.  It’s also fun to hear references to local and regional place names such as Clark and Lake, the “cob tower” of Marina City, Roosevelt Road, and the village of Bourbonnais (although Kankakee is mispronounced as KanKAkee at one point). And some other details should resonate with Chicago residents as when the script changes the gender of a journalist from Carl Phillips (the name given on Welles’ radio broadcast) to Carla Phillips who is, in this version, a reporter from WBEZ.

As the Martians create havoc on the ground, Izzy’s stunned voice captures perfectly the desolate landscape that surrounds her (“A horse trots all alone down a lonely stretch of highway”). The sound effects are impressive too: to these ears, the hubbub of the invading Martians echoes the discordant notes of the aliens in the film Arrival. We also hear the clamor of the street noise and the push of the crowd as people in the city are told to go home. The climax takes place along the river (“Clear the Riverwalk!” an officer shouts), the DuSable Bridge is destroyed, and a battle rages on Lake Michigan. Meanwhile, at Navy Pier, an Architecture Tour boat attempts to rescue as many people as possible from the Martian onslaught. “Open the locks!’ the crowd cries as Izzy observes in disbelief, “There’s a battleship on Lake Michigan!”

The author’s collection of Mars books. Photo by June Sawyers.

But not everything works. In an attempt to update the setting and perhaps appeal to a younger audience there is a rather lame conversation between Izzy and her sister, Shelly (Ming Hudson)—who uses a misplaced Valley Girl-like cadence––ostensibly taking place at Miller’s Pub. It seems forced and incongruous.

In the end, the Martians are “licked by the smallest living things on the planet”: bacteria. And in a subtle acknowledgment to the ongoing pandemic, Izzy offers a poignant and timely observation, “Think: If only we had risen together. If only we had worked as one.”

A War of the Worlds will be performed live online six times per week through November 21. Tickets are pay-what-you-can ($20-$25 suggested donation). For more information, see www.theatreinthedark.com

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