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‘On the Beach’ Revisits Dread of Cold War

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s been a long time since the days of pre-fab bomb shelters, routine nuclear drills and presidential campaigns that paid much attention to nuclear proliferation. The Cold War is over, and many--prematurely or not--have buried this volatile issue in the psychic equivalent of a nuclear waste dump.

Now, Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel of nuclear annihilation and human valor, “On the Beach,” has been expertly streamlined for the Cal Rep stage by Howard Burman, the company’s artistic producing director. Burman’s adaptation of this gut-wrenching tale revives the immediacy and dread of a more paranoid--or less complacent--time.

As in the novel, the setting of the play is Melbourne, Australia, the southernmost large city in the world--and the last to face destruction from the nuclear cloud that has already wiped out most of the world’s population. The action is set in the present, but beyond a few tacked-on topical references, this decades-old classic requires little dramatic meddling to seem wholly contemporary.

A few characters have been excised, while others have been embellished and augmented. However, the novel’s protagonists and plot--even large chunks of dialogue--survive intact. With minimalistic delicacy, Burman preserves the stark outlines of Shute’s story without losing a beat of its dramatic resonance.

Director Ronald Allan-Lindblom’s keen pacing keeps the action riveting, with only an occasional drift in focus. Danila Korogodsky’s simple set--the jutting gray hull of a nuclear submarine counterbalanced by a small, suggestive beach area--provides an effective backdrop for a variety of locales. Mark Abel’s lighting and sound--especially the whooshing “devil wind” that is sweeping death toward these last survivors--contribute to the suspense.

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The Australian dialect is a stumbling block for many, but the performers are generally competent--some even inspired. Penelope Miller-Lindblom, who has been conveniently bestowed with a British accent for the occasion, displays an emotional maturity that makes Moira’s doomed affair with stoic American naval officer Dwight Towers (Baron Kelly) all the more gripping.

John Shepard’s keenly tuned portrayal of an eccentric Australian scientist is heartbreakingly off-hand, as is Matt Southwell’s as a naval officer who must make special “arrangements” for the humane deaths of his wife (Katie Johnson) and new baby. Peter Zapp masterfully laces his unsentimental performance as a ramrod Australian admiral with just the right hint of compassion. One does wonder, however, if such stiff-upper-lip discipline and order could be as casually maintained if a catastrophe of this scale occurred today.

* “On the Beach,” Cal Rep Theatre, Cal State Long Beach, 7th Street and West Campus Drive, Long Beach. Wednesdays, 6 p.m.; Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; this Saturday and Oct. 12, 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 19. $15. (310) 985-7000. Running time: 2 hours.


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