‘Pattern of Life’ Takes Intimate Look at Toll of Drone Warfare (5 Stars)

”Pattern of Life’ – Written by Walt McGough; Directed by Bridget Kathleen O’’eary; Presented by New Repertory Theatre at the Boston University Theatre, Lane-Comley Studio 210, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston through June 29th.

Not all of the casualties of war are the dead and the maimed. Sometimes the psychic scars run as deep as any wound for those on the periphery of battle. Conversely, there are acts of personal bravery that come when those who have never fired a shot or tossed a grenade choose to no longer participate in the culture of madness that is modern war. The prevailing zeitgeist of a given culture may not allow that society to see them as brave, but the beginning of the end to armed conflicts often begins with the recognition by a few who recognize and voice that what is being done is either morally wrong or just plain futile.

The New Repertory Theatre’s brilliant staging of the world premiere of Walt McGough’s “Pattern of Life” touches on this subject by presenting two very conflicted men on either side of the seemingly endless “war on terror” – a Pakistani teacher and a U.S. drone pilot. Although separated by thousands of miles, the lives of the two men are intimately connected through the drone, and its operation and presence has taken a significant toll on both of their psyches.

Rahmat (Niall Nacer) is an apolitical teacher who lives with his brother and his brother’s young son in a village that has a Taliban-esque presence. His brother is becoming very chummy with the resistance fighters, and they give him an old truck and a gift for Rahmat in an attempt to woo the pair to their side. Rahmat is not sympathetic to the cause, refers to the group as “criminals” when he tells his story to the audience, and he is understandably bitter towards them for burning down his school.

Back in the States (in a trailer in the Nevada desert), drone pilot Carlo (Lewis D. Wheeler) and his co-pilot Vanessa (whom we never see but are told that she is very pregnant), man the drone that is surveilling the village where Rahmat lives. Carlo at first appears to be a by-the-book airman as evidenced by his angrily repeated explanations of why drones should not be called anything other than “remotely piloted aircraft”. But his human frailties come to light as the play progresses.

The play is staged in the Black Box at the Boston University Theatre, Lane-Comley Studio 210, and the intimate setting lends itself beautifully to this intense work. It is a very spare set, with only a table and two chairs, and four TV sets (which double as surveillance camera screens). Each actor tells his story to the audience separately throughout the course of the play, and the two only meet in scenes of their mutual dreams, where they haunt and taunt each other after Rahmat’s nephew is accidentally killed in a drone strike that demolishes the truck given to his brother by the rebels.

Nacer and Wheeler are brilliant in their respective roles, and are a study in contrast. Rahmat is a deep thinker with a great empathy towards humanity, and his scene following the death of the nephew is heart wrenching. Carlo appears to have a strict can-do military attitude towards the task at hand, but the drone job is taking its toll. Days after incredulously asking his co-pilot, “Did we just kill a kid?” we see Carlo melting down, asking the audience, “How am I supposed to tell her that I’m dissolving?” when his co-pilot tries to counsel him through a rough patch where the booze can no longer shut off his thoughts.

This is the best-written new play I have seen in a long time. And like the equally gripping “Gidion’s Knot” (now playing at the BCA), this is a production where two of Boston’s finest young-ish actors are alone on stage for the fully 80 minutes (no intermission) and have us on the edge of our seats for the entire production. This is great theater in close quarters and should not be missed. For more info, go to: http://www.newrep.org/