THEATER REVIEW: War of the Worlds 

Widespread Panic: Playhouse's War of the Worlds recalls Orson Welles' 'terrible lesson'

War of the Worlds
Oct. 24-25, 30-Nov. 1, 8 p.m.
Oct. 26 and Nov. 5, 5 p.m.
$12-$20
Village Playhouse
730 Coleman Blvd., Mt. Pleasant
(843) 856-1579
www.villageplayhouse.com

Think Ashton Kutcher is a primo prankster?

He's got nothing on Orson Welles.

Seventy years ago, Welles managed to punk an entire nation.

On Halloween Eve 1938, the 23-year-old Welles and his theatrical posse staged what should have been nothing more than an entertaining radio adaptation of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.

Welles and writer Howard Koch had decided to update the well-known Victorian sci-fi thriller: setting it in contemporary 1930s America, jazzing it up with a breaking news format to give their program dramatic urgency. They succeeded.

As their fake news broadcast beamed out into the night, across the country, real panic spread in its wake.

Things quickly got out of hand as thousands in the radio audience who'd tuned in late to the show mistook the news bulletins of the radio play for genuine reports of an alien invasion. Police switchboards lit up with frantic calls. People raced to gather their loved ones, arm themselves, take shelter. Hundreds took to the streets in major cities.

For a few hours, it was Ghostbuster Peter Venkman's dire warning realized: Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!

The Village Playhouse presentation of War of the Worlds gives us a behind-the-scenes look at that fateful evening in CBS Studio One and at the radio theater company that had no idea of the chaos it had set in motion. Keely Enright's show is spot-on, marrying a faithful, convincing recreation of the original 55-minute broadcast along with lively vignettes of the program's unfortunate aftermath.

The play opens with Howard Koch (R.L. Shreadley) giving us backstory and context for what's about to unfold. From there, Orson Welles (Paul Whitty) and his ensemble re-enact the broadcast, doing a splendid job of demonstrating how radio drama was created.

Ora Nichols (Katherine Chaney) grabs the lion's share of laughs as the network's only female special effects sound engineer — stomping around in a box of gravel, drawing alien ship noises from the rim of a crystal goblet, faking Army Air Corps bomber engines with the whine of a close-miked desk fan. There's even one ominous alien sound created in a bathroom toilet bowl.

It's easy to revel in the inherent goofiness of these studio tricks and still lose yourself in the broadcast itself — surprisingly vivid, even today. As the program rolls on, we see the control booth staff taking incoming calls, more frantic by the moment.

After the broadcast wraps for the evening, the Playhouse cast gives us a sampling of the harrowing and hilarious public reactions to that evening's sensational events.

For a few tense days, as news of the nationwide panic set in, Welles felt certain his career was over. Ultimately, newspaper columnist Dorothy Thompson got him off the hook, writing that he'd done the nation a service by demonstrating how vulnerable the country was to panic in the event of war.

War of the Worlds is thought-provoking in an unexpected, almost chilling way. At the end, Welles reminds his audience to "remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight." It's a lesson about mass media and the unquestioned reliability of our news sources that we still struggle with today.


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