At one point in The Soundless Awe, an actor portraying Mochitsura Hashimoto, captain of the Japanese submarine that torpedoed the USS Indianapolis, reverently holds a small potted bush while circling the stage, often presenting it in such a way as if it were Simba from The Lion King.
It pains me to say this, given the unfathomable tragedy of the USS Indianapolis and the deteriorating mental health that mercilessly dogged its captain, Charles McVay III, leading him to take his own life, but this show falls into the top five of the most pretentious pieces of theater I have ever seen in my almost two decades of theater-going.
I was intrigued by what the show promised: “The Soundless Awe is a horrific and heart-breaking imagining of McVay’s final nightmare before he pulls the trigger [killing himself].” I expected insight into McVay’s life and mindset post-Indianapolis. Instead, the play is bogged down by too many ostentatious metaphors and disjointed scenes. It can’t even compare to the stunned silence that rips through one’s soul during the three-and-a-half-minute speech in Jaws—even if that monologue is inaccurate.
There is material with so much potential that could have been mined for the play—all of it true. One of the most controversial aspects of the Indianapolis’ demise is McVay’s court martial, in which he was found guilty—a subject many laypeople know little if nothing about. This injustice (which was reversed posthumously), his barrage of letters from family members of dead servicemen, and overwhelming survivor’s guilt all led to his suicide. While we get snippets of the court martial trial in which McVay was charged with negligence, examples of the letters from family members of the deceased, and scenes from the servicemen in the water, none of this leaves enough of an impression—or even gives enough information—to make the show particularly compelling. Surprisingly, his court martial is only treated on the surface level, and as for his eventual exoneration, it is merely a footnote. I was so distracted by that little bush that I can’t even tell you if Hashimoto’s support of McVay, both during and after his trial, was even mentioned.
As for McVay, the only dynamic scene written for him that truly brings out his humanity is the complicated familial interaction between him and his father, including an explanation of the toy sailor he carried with him.
Leaving most of the emotionally riveting parts of the show the handful of period photos and video footage from the era.
As for presentation, watch your step, as a shallow pool of water is set in the center of the stage, which the actors get to roll around and splash in.
When allowed, most of the acting is quite good. The show opens with Jason Narvy, alone, sitting in a chair aimlessly watching Lawrence Welk. The raw emotion and haunted expression draw you in immediately. He remains in the spotlight long enough that it begins to make you uncomfortable—a smart device. However, as the show progresses, the other actors are often subjected to affectation through director Brian Fruits. Movements, such as slow, high steps, are used … why? Are they meant to add gravity? The story is grave enough already; this is unnecessary. It is particularly painful in The Gray Woman (Katie Zisson), a character used for multipurpose symbology as well as a lounge singer—and she also gets to be a weird shark.
And oh God, what is up with the voice modulation?
This show was brought to IndyFringe from Chicago as part of the USS Indianapolis Survivors Reunion happening this weekend, and I believe when I was there Friday night, the vast majority—if not entire—audience was made up of reunion attendees. As we were leaving, I heard some audience members say a genuine “thank you” and I heard one “amazing.” But I just can’t.
- IndyFringe Theatre
- Continues though Sunday, but sold out except July 20, 12:30 p.m. show
- $10 general admission; 50 percent of ticket sales and donations will go directly to the USS Indianapolis Survivors Organization
Author’s note: I am the wife of a Navy veteran. However, he was lucky enough not to serve in wartime (and he did serve before our relationship). So this is not me being callous. Just the opposite. Thinking that something similar to this could have happened to him if the circumstances of his service had been different freaks me the fuck out. Thankfully, the worst thing that happened during his enlistment was that he hit a whale while “driving” the submarine. Needless to say, this is something that my friends and I have mined for many, many jokes at his expense.