In our 24/7 media world, once trusted leaders and institutions seem to be ensnared in malfeasance on an all too regular basis. Walmart workers are underpaid and forced to rely on food stamps; home ownership has once again become out of reach for many Americans; and college students are forced to live under crushing debt in order to pay for their education. Asolo Conservatory’s play, The Water Engine, looks at the origins of corporate corruption in Depression-era United States.
The Water Engine, which continues through this weekend, examines what happens when a reserved, young scientist, Charles Lang, invents the aforementioned clean energy engine, which threatens a system built on the strides of industrialization. His invention promises a diminishment of our dependency on mass-production and offers him a chance for the bucolic lifestyle he and his sister long for. Lang said: “My sister says. There are no more factories. This engine. This engine, Mr. Gross, draws from the Earth. It draws its power from the Earth.”
Lang entrusts his invention to a lawyer, Gross, of whom he is very suspicious. He seals the contract with a dollar and hopes for the best. According to contract law, Lang has provided consideration, his small payment, for the lawyer’s discretion. Yet he takes this fateful step amid a chorus of characters ominously reciting chain letters, each promising that dreams will come true if you send a dollar to the next person on the list.
When Lang transfers the dollar to the lawyer to file for patent protection, his fate is sealed. Corporate interests cannot permit Lang’s water engine to be patented. One of the characters reads a chain letter: “The terror of the Cities of the Night is Stilled Commerce. Now we are characters within a dream of industry. Within a dream of toil…”
The cast is made up of second year students in the Asolo Conservatory program, and several of them play double duty producing sound effects, as this was originally produced as a radio play. For example, when the lead characters walk, they sway back and forth as an actor in the background walks on gravel to create the sounds underfoot. And, in a simple but very effective move, when Lang pours water into the engine to demonstrate it, a sound effects person pours the water at a sound station at the back of the stage.
This compelling play has much to say about the power of industry and greed to subsume the natural world. The action of the play takes place during the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition, designed to celebrate science and innovation. The Exposition announcer says: “Science, yes, the greatest force for Good and Evil we possess…Our thoughts, our dreams, our aspirations rendered into practical and useful forms. Our science is our self.”
As we struggle to understand the impact of climate change amid moneyed interests denying its existence, this quiet, insightful play makes us think about what might have been. Although necessity is thought to be the mother of invention, in this case, our need succumbs to greed.