Did you know that Iceland was invaded by the British in World War II? Neither did I. Or that the Americans took over later with US Marines stationed there? Or how after December 7, 1941, American Army soldiers took over so the Marines could be redeployed to the Pacific? Why? Because Iceland was smack in the route for the convoys of war materiel destined for Great Britain and the Soviet Union and was critical for resupply and repairs. The threat from Nazi Germany abated when Hitler sent the Wehrmacht into Russia to wage war in the grizzliest conflict the world had ever seen.
Cailin Maureen Harrison’s new play, Defenders, is set against that time and those events. Three American soldiers are shipwrecked on Hrisey Island, a tiny bit of land just north of the Icelandic mainland. They stumble through a vicious storm fraught with lightening, thunder, and rain, into a defunct chapel. Cold, wet and disheveled, they are a sorry lot, their supplies and equipment lost, save for a radio that works sporadically and a jammed, tripod-mounted machine gun. This hapless crew is led by Lieutenant Marcus Jansen (Bryan Porter), an upper-crust martinet from a Wall Street family. Sergeant Frank McKinley (Tavis Doucette) works as well as he can with his arm in a sling from a severe shoulder sprain. He obeys his commanding officer slavishly in the hope that his connection with the lieutenant will help him into a Wall Street career if they survive the war. Private Fred LaFleur (Spencer Martin) is a teen-aged recruit who may have lied about his age to get into the war to do his duty. He has a sweet disposition and a strong Cajun accent that is often incomprehensible. He spends a lot of time trying to fix the jammed gun, to no avail.
Some islanders have seen the hapless trio and come to investigate. Geir Styrsson (the commanding John P. Connolly), the island’s pastor, and his daughter, Vigdis Geirsdóttir (lovely Icelandic-born Una Eggerts), are taken aback by the hostility of the frightened soldiers who are suspicious of them. Once things settle down, the islanders are helpful, bringing the soldiers food, blankets and strong drink; the Norse white lightning, Aquavit, not doubt. In a Twilight-Zone twist into the supernatural, it soon becomes clear that Nature has it in for them.
Under the direction of Reena Dutt, the play bursts into action at the very top of the show, in medias res, supported by the vigorous sound design of Jesse Mandapat and the flashing, swirling lights of Dominik Krzanowski. As the play progresses, there are moments when, understandably perhaps, the action lags. Such an opening cannot be sustained. There are sweet, romantic sparks between the teenagers; the lieutenant pays the price of his arrogance; the radio-man wallows in frustration over his on-again-off-again wireless; and the man of cloth does his Christian duty with power and grace.
I like the cast. The scenic design by David Goldstein, the prop work by Michael Allen Angel, and Shon LeBlanc’s costumes are all excellent. But the show loses steam and the urgency of the opening is dissipated.
Produced by Racquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners, presented by Pandelia’s Canary Yellow Company, and stage managed by Seira Murakami, Defenders continues through December 8 at The Broadwater Black Box, 6322 Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood.