"Set in a bleak naval prison in Devon, England" is just the kind of description I can get behind. For those interested in seafaring history and maritime justice, or explorations of America's long-in-the-making racial tensions — especially those that exist in prisons — playwright Carlyle Brown's "Dartmoor Prison" holds the promise of something potent.
The bones of a solid play are here. Some judicious rewrites are in order, but what is a new-play festival about, if not the opportunity for a writer to see a work fully staged and discover issues not immediately evident on the page?
The Goodman's New Stages program, which has for years been focused on developing new work, returns this year in a beefed-up New Stages Amplified incarnation, offering fully staged productions with some of the city's finest directors and actors on board (rather like the Steppenwolf's annual First Look). In the coming weeks, audiences will get a chance to sample Kathleen Tolan's "Chicago Boys" (about a fictional protege of University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman) as well Seth Bockley's "Ask Aunt Susan" (about a male, Depression-era newspaper reporter who writes an advice column). Each runs for about a week and a half.
"Dartmoor Prison" (directed by new Victory Gardens artistic director Chay Yew) is the first in the lineup, and it concerns a group of American sailors captured by British forces during the War of 1812. Food and clothing are in short supply, and one punishment devised by the redcoats involves stuffing a prisoner into a box 30 inches square and burying it in the ground for days on end. But their real trouble, as laid out by Brown, is their divide along color lines. On board ship, blacks and whites worked side by side; things are decidedly less fraternal on land, where they are frequently at one another's throats.
Brown is drawing from real historical events here, though the play doesn't devote nearly enough time to world-building before the first conflict erupts. Exposition weighs down scenes that shoulder the burden of Very Important Declarations and Forcefully Delivered Dialogue about patriotism and alliances and pent-up rage. Yet there's precious little character development. (Dexter Zollicoffer's Deacon is the lone exception.)
Appealingly, the narrative draws from everything from "Mutiny on the Bounty" to "Papillon" to "Roots." But it's never evident what larger point Brown is working toward, and the ending lacks sufficient emotional punch.
When: Through Oct. 23
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 2 hours