He's played Patty Duke's dad, Dobie Gillis' teacher, and nearly 800 other roles besides, and now William Schallert will star, Feb. 7-24, in a new play based on a novel by another television veteran, PBS anchor Jim Lehrer. The Special Prisoner, adapted by James Glossman from Lehrer's novel of the same name, runs at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, the state's only Equity venue dedicated to developing new plays and dramatists.
In Prisoner, a retired bishop and WWII veteran comes across a man he recognizes as the Japanese POW Commandant who tortured and murdered thousands of American soldiers. Billed as "a drama of justice and forgiveness," the piece is directed by author Glossman, who previously adapted Lehrer's "Kick the Can" for a staging in 1996.
According to Playwrights Theatre of NJ spokesperson LucyAnn Saltzman, Lehrer wrote the book when he started ruminating on what it must've been like to be a Japanese person on the ground when American bombers flew overhead. "I tried to understand," Lehrer is quoted as saying, "the competing emotions of forgiveness and revenge from each side fifty years later."
Joining Schallert in The Special Prisoner are Paul Murphy and Jim Yue, who appeared in a concert reading of the piece at PTNJ last season, and Sonnie Brown. This production will use elements from Japanese Noh drama and feature traditional music by Justine F. Chen. Designing the show are Richard Turick (set), Richard Currie (lighting) and Bettina Bierly (costumes).
Novelist Lehrer, best known for being executive editor of "The PBS Newshour," is no stranger to theatre himself. His black comedy, Chili Queen, had its West Coast premiere at the Coronet Theatre in 1998. He's written two previous plays, Church Key Charlie Blue and The Will and Bart Show . as well as 12 books, including "Viva Max," the basis for a feature film starring Peter Ustinov. For tickets ($18-$20) and information on The Special Prisoner at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey call (973) 514-1787, ext. 30 or check out their website, www. Ptnj.org.
— By David Lefkowitz