Playwright Lowell Byers and director Austin Pendleton’s “Luft Gangster,” is more than the stage version of a war movie. It’s the true story of Lou Fowler, one of the few remaining World War II veterans and a tragic story of a young American who finds himself in a German concentration camp. The crew uses the lights, sounds and the actors’ skills to their advantage when recreating the atmosphere of the past century Europe.
Putting together the plot, based on the interviews with Mr. Fowler, conducted by Byers, the playwright and the director pinpoint the most important events in the protagonist’s story. The audience witnesses Lou’s relationship with his ill mother (the only part of his pre-war life shown), his joining the US air forces, his shot-down plane, and then his injury and capture. Each short scene is meant to reveal Lou’s character traits, and he comes across as a loving son, a brave soldier, and an easy-going, compassionate and religious young man.
As the story progresses, the setting remains the same; however, the lights that go down in between the scenes signal the viewers about the change in time and place and help avoid confusion. Furthermore, the characters’ dialogues often fill in the voids in the plot and setting, telling the audience where the characters are and what is going on.
While the setting is simple enough to characterize any period of time, we know that we deal with the World War II events due to the sounds of the radio in the background. As an important attribute of the time period, radio becomes a crucial element of the setting. It puts us in the pre-war mood before the play begins and then it reappears in the intermission. Amongst other sounds are gunshots and explosions, which makes the action seem real to the audience, the effect that could not be achieved otherwise in a theater.
Since the action takes place in Europe, the use of foreign languages becomes pertinent. The characters often try to communicate their needs in the few foreign words they know. For example, when Iva (Casandera M. J. Lollar) finds injured Lou, she quickly realizes that they can communicate in Italian, even though none of them speaks it fluently.
It often makes the audience laugh when the lacking vocabulary characters use gestures to express their thoughts. At the same time, it is impressive that many of the actors speak fluent German and a few other foreign languages. Many actors play more than one role, and it is curious to see how their language changes when they switch from one role to another. Miss Lollar constitutes one example. At first, she plays Iva, the speaker of a few European languages, and then Glennie, whose Southern accent gives away where she comes from.
Since Fowler himself is from South Carolina, the Southern accent and culture can’t help appearing in the play, which again flickers the viewers’ interest. For example, when Lou tells a story to a fellow prisoner, the latter interrupts the narrator, who then does not continue the story until his companion is done talking. Thus, we can see that people from the South consider it extremely (more so than New Yorkers, for instance) rude to interrupt one another during communication.
Even though the play deals with past events, a modern viewer can find in it something he or she can relate to. Honesty, courage and loyalty are virtues valuable both during war and at times of peace. People of every generation sympathize with someone who is trying to survive in difficult conditions. And these are just a few things that make Luft Gangster memorable and exciting to watch.