The two characters live half a world apart, bound together by technology and violence.
Carlo works long shifts in a a US Air Force trailer in the Nevada desert, watching live video from an armed drone he controls above the countryside of Pakistan. Rahmat is a Pashtun villager and teacher, trying to navigate the daily struggles of life in a place ravaged by conflict and controlled by the Taliban.
Carlo looks for targets. Rahmat tries to avoid becoming one.
What happens when their lives intersect, even while the men remain thousands of miles apart, is the subject of Walt McGough’s new play, “Pattern of Life.” New Repertory Theatre’s world premiere production opened Saturday in Lane-Comley Studio 210 at the Boston University Theatre on Huntington Avenue, under the direction of Bridget Kathleen O’Leary.
The unusual format — a two-character play in which the characters meet only in dreams — is an essential expression of the subject, McGough said: “There is something about drones that is both incredibly distancing and incredibly intimate.”
The actors, Lewis D. Wheeler as Carlo and Nael Nacer as Rahmat, are two of Boston’s best. Perhaps surprisingly, they’ve never worked together, but they know each other socially. Sitting in a bright rehearsal studio at BU with a view over the Mass. Pike and the Charles River, they laugh easily and often. There’s not much laughter in the script, though.
Carlo hates it when people call them drones or even “unmanned aerial vehicles.” He prefers the term “remotely piloted aircraft.” It’s important to him that we acknowledge the human beings involved, the skill they bring to bear and — though he doesn’t say it in so many words — the emotional price some of them pay.
“People call it the ‘Chair Force,’ and other people in the military look down on them,” Wheeler said. “They’re not with their buddies off in some remote location with that sense of community. They do what they do, then they get in a car, drive home, and have dinner with their wife and kids. And they just possibly killed someone. So it totally messes with their brains.”
Rahmat, meanwhile, hates and fears the drones, which deal death and destruction from above in a land where there’s already too much of both. Directly and indirectly, they cut him off from a better future, and even fuel support for the Taliban.
“For me the research was about figuring out what that world is like,” said Nacer. “There’s a great website, Living Under Drones, that’s exactly what it is, what life under drones is like. It’s terror, all the time, because drones are up there 24/7.”
In the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Pakistan, where drone activity is perhaps heaviest now, the drones have even become a kind of boogeyman, he said: “They say if the children aren’t good, the mothers will call for the planes. It’s that scary. They have their own PTSD over there.”
Nacer was in McGough’s Kafkaesque spy drama “The Farm” at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre in 2011. That show, McGough said, was “set very much during the Bush-era White House and Abu Ghraib era.” He mulled a present-day CIA-Mideast story but wasn’t sure what it would be about except that it would involve drones.
Drones “are a really seductive idea — that we’ll only kill bad guys,” McGough said. “And it will keep us from having boots on the ground.”
The reality is harsher on both ends. “Pattern of Life” began to take shape when he read a magazine article about a former US military drone operator and the wrenching effect of the job’s remote-control lethality.
“He’s been going through post-traumatic stress disorder, and essentially was the first pilot from the program to start speaking up about the problems with it,” McGough said, “the lasting effects it has on the pilots, and the idea that we don’t know as much as we think we do about the people we’re killing.”
Shortly thereafter, McGough came across a newspaper article about a man in Yemen who spoke up against a local Al Qaeda cell — and was arguing with the terrorists when he died in a drone strike aimed at them. The awful irony spurred McGough to write. “This was one of these guys you’d think you’d want on your side,” he said.
Rahmat is no radical Islamist; he’s a moderate, a teacher whose school has been burned down by the Taliban. He’s a bit lost, really, living with his brother and young nephew. When his brother’s radicalization draws Carlo’s attention, Rahmat finds they’re all in harm’s way.
“There’s terror, there’s grief, there’s economic hardship,” Nacer says. “Just the idea that, at any moment, if you do anything that someone might find suspicious, you could blow up, is unimaginable to me. And yet that’s daily life over there. Daily life.”
Carlo, meanwhile, is falling apart because he can’t stop thinking about the human targets he “paints” with a laser so his partner can fire a missile at them. When he walks out into the Nevada sunshine at the end of a shift — a landscape not unlike Rahmat’s — he can’t leave it all behind.
“These pilots talk about how you’re in a trailer watching video screens and there’s no sound. But at the same time, you’re watching people go through their days, in their houses, eating dinner, sleeping, going to work,” McGough said. “So there’s a real sense that you’re getting to know these people, know their lives. But at the same time there’s an enforced distance from that.”
Each character feels utterly alone, despite connecting in dreams. Most of the time, it’s the audience that Wheeler and Nacer address.
“Directing a two-person show where they talk directly to the audience is exhausting. I’m all they have in the room,” said O’Leary, who is also associate artistic director at New Rep. “I can’t check out. I have to be present for them.”
The actors “could not be more different. They’re very much like their characters in this way,” said O’Leary. “Lewis is very practical. He thinks a lot about what he’s going to do before he does it, and then he just dives in. He takes a note really, really quickly. Nael is much more visceral. He has to experience the moment, in the moment.”
Wheeler has an Air Force connection through his first cousin, the late Captain David Sielewicz, a mentor, friend, and surrogate older brother when Wheeler was growing up. Sielewicz, who piloted cargo planes, was 28 when he was killed in a midair collision during a training mission over Montana 22 years ago. .
“This play brings up all kinds of things for me,” said Wheeler. The well-worn combat boots he plans to wear on stage are Sielewicz’s.