The press release for The P.O.W. and the Girl, a new play from Katrina Wood, has a tease in it. The plot is inspired by the experiences of her father, Percy Herbert, a character actor. He was a prisoner of war in Southeast Asia and was part of the slave labor that built the Burma Railway and the River Kwai bridge. It is ironic, therefore, that one of his roles after the war was in the multiple Oscar-winning film, The Bridge on the River Kwai. I love that film and have seen it many times. That tended to raise my expectations.
The P.O.W. and the Girl is the gritty story of a young woman billed only as The Girl (Samantha Mallory) struggling to make a career for herself as an EMT while caring for her elderly grandfather, the P.O.W. of the title (Chas Mitchell). Set in North London in the 1980s, an unsettled time of change, of Margaret Thatcher and punk rock, the divide between the two is more than that of age. He cheers on his soccer team while she plays her video game with vigorous attention. He has moved in with the girl after her mother, his daughter, died. All they have of family is each other.
The old P.O.W. is plagued with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that ruins his sleep and brings back all the memories and horrors of his imprisonment. He has reason to be troubled, but he treats his granddaughter with insufferable scorn and derision. He demeans her, puts her down. He is the picture of the proverbial male chauvinist pig. The girl is goodhearted, but lashes back in self-defense.
While exhibiting at her college’s science fair, the Girl gets accosted by a sexual predator, big handsome Kyle, the Bully (Lucas Helmersson). She is rescued by Paul, the Boy (Adrian Burks), and a romance starts to bud. But he has his own cross to bear, a nasty, demanding, wheelchair-bound harridan of a Mother (Natalia Bilbao).
Whenever the P.O.W. goes to bed, his sleep calls up vivid memories. Some are sweet; a scene when he meets the lovely Alice (Ms. Bilbao) at a dance hall; the time when she promises to wait for him. But then there are the war and imprisonment memories, which are haunted by death and cruelty with a Japanese Soldier (Jeffrey Gibson) screaming and prodding him; a pretty heavy load to bear.
Unfortunately, the characters as written lack dimension. They are not helped much by the director, Trace Oakley, who has them doing a lot of heated shouting. And there are staging problems in the small Sherry Theatre space. A sexual assault halfway up the aisle was literally inches from where this theatregoer sat. People down in front would be hard-pressed to see what is going on. And I remember a butt clad in khaki looming near my face. I cannot fault the actors here, who are doing their best to bring the play to life, but they are hampered by the director and squeezed by a too ambitious set.
Produced by Katie Mae Peters and presented by Strongerwood Productions, The P.O.W. and the Girl runs through February 16 at The Sherry Theatre, 11052 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.