A gunfight breaks out on the highway. Another day, another massacre in Eliza Clark’s near-future dystopian war-torn America, in which air strikes on major targets and street battles are now routine. The war has waged for eight long years, moving up from the capitol toward New York, and nobody knows who to trust anymore. When a wounded man who’s obviously keeping secrets stumbles into a New Jersey fast-food restaurant where three teens work, they have to make a decision—which side is he on?
Directed by Theatre  co-artistic director Mike Brooks, Clark’s “Edgewise” opened Friday at the Clifton Center. The show runs through Aug. 24, with performances Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. “Edgewise” is a psychological thriller set during global war and the very normal coming-of-age struggles of three teenagers. Ruckus (Michael Mayes) is the slacker assistant manager with enough pent-up testosterone to fuel a thousand hours of first-person shooter video games. He can’t stop teasing shy and earnest Marco (Ian Weber), who has a crush on hardworking, no-nonsense Emma (Casandre Elyse Medel). It’s a typical adolescent scene until Louis (Eli Keel) limps into the Dougal’s with a shot-up leg and a story that doesn’t quite sound right. Emma and Marco think they should go for help, but Ruckus, with a gleam in his eye, thinks they should “handle” the situation themselves.
Here’s a chilling thought: Ruckus, a hilarious braggart who can’t even handle turning the fryers on before the restaurant opens, is a couple of months shy of 18, when he’ll be old enough to join the military and fight in the war. And he can’t wait.
But that’s precisely why this war story works—these kids aren’t old enough to fight, but they will be quite soon, and their ethics are still fairly malleable, their decision-making skills under stress not so strong. The story of wars can’t be told through the accounts of mature officers alone. 18-year-olds with guns make split-second, life and death choices every day, all over the world. And they do it while flirting, joking, making each other laugh and generally trying to stay human during inhuman situations, a contradiction that Brooks handles deftly in Clark’s script. His staging of a scene in which Marco and Emma commence flirting in earnest while Ruckus toys with Louis underscores the contradiction of innocence and violence brilliantly.
They tie Louis up and question him. It gets ugly. The story changes. The audience doesn’t know which side Louis is on either, but thanks to the intense performances of Keel and Mayes, they feel the danger he is in completely. Soon, they’ve bagged another interloper to tie up in the supply closet, Paul (JohnBen Lacy), a walk-in who started asking too many questions.
Clark’s script keeps the psychological wheels turning, as Louis attempts to survive his encounters with Ruckus and manipulate the gentler Emma and Marco into letting him leave. But Emma and Marco carry their own scars and anger from growing up in a war zone, and they’re not the lightweights Louis initially marks them for. Brooks keeps the pace of the show brisk (80 minutes with no intermission) and the tension high—we know the story can’t end well for someone, but the suspense is there until the end. Excellent performances from the cast ground the story, especially from Weber and Medel, whose characters’ traumas provide real heart and motivation behind their increasingly desperate situation.
Theatre ’s designers continue to shine — the small company has an all-star roster of technical theatre artists working with them, which allows them to stage plays other companies might have to avoid for technical reasons alone. Resident sound designer Scott Anthony’s pre-show music (including some well-placed Rage Against the Machine) sets the tone from the start, and while some of designer Jesse AlFord’s lighting transitions lagged a bit on opening night, that could have been due to complications with getting a hog-tied, covered-in-blood Keel in place in the dark. Heather Lindert’s props are on point, fleshing out Braden Blaser’s excellent set realistically and effectively.
His economical yet realistic set is split in two: behind the counter (the visible world) and the supply closet (the hidden room), drawing a distinct line between what the kids can allow to be seen and what they are hiding. Both set and the audience are placed on the Clifton Center stage, a wise choice for the space. I wish they had been able to close the curtain behind the set, though, as at times the large space behind the actors swallowed some of Weber’s quieter lines. But a more traditional use of the house would have put too much distance between audience and action. The performances would have to have been bigger, and the effect less realistic. Close in, the audience feels like they are peeking through a back window, eavesdropping on these kids and the strange, tense situation they’ve found themselves in.