‘Catch-22’ a nearly perfect adaptation

Among American war literature, Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” is a seminal work. Its blend of absurd humor, surreal horror and nonlinear storytelling has made it a classic commentary on the nihilistic nature of war.

But bringing it to stage is a daunting task. Armed with a script developed by Heller himself in 1971, director Peter Meineck and the Aquila Theatre Company pulled it off brilliantly at the Lied Center Friday night.

The story follows Yossarian (Scott Drummond), a B-25 bomber captain forced to fly mission after dangerous mission and his futile quest to get himself grounded. He learns the only way to be removed from flight duty is to be declared insane, but he must ask for the diagnosis, which proves he is fine – the titular Catch-22. Yossarian slowly loses his mind as friend after friend is killed on the missions they must fly to satisfy the career plans of the heartless Colonel Cathcart (Reginald Metcalf).

Drummond gives a tour de force performance as the frustrated bomber, railing against the regulations that continually put his life in danger and madly seeking some way to not only preserve his life but also find a reason for living. His Yossarian is angry, much angrier than the one in the book, and we feel his frustration acutely. He is surrounded by friends who sympathize with his plight but who are unable or unwilling to help him.

Drummond is supported by a strong cast, all of whom play at least three roles, switching seamlessly and often changing accents as easily as they might change costumes. Richard Sheridan Willis in particular played seven characters but seemed to be a completely different actor in each role.

The set operated as a character itself, with movable pieces that could be assembled to create a B-25 bomber but break apart into beds, offices and other objects. The actors doubled as stage crew, moving them in such a way that scenes flowed from one to the next with minimal transition. Images from World War II bombing runs were projected onto the back wall to add to the atmosphere, and propaganda songs from the war were woven throughout the action.

As with any adaptation from a novel, certain aspects of the book were sadly lost. Background details such as how Major Major got his name were not explained, the continual theme of missions that were supposed to be “milk runs” but were incredibly deadly was not present, and M&M Enterprises making profit at the expense of soldiers’ safety was much more subdued than in the book. The novel’s nonlinear sequence of events is also largely lost, but the scenes were structured in such a way as to convey that same feeling of disjointedness.

None of that detracted from the play, though. “Catch-22” is an engrossing and haunting tale of the insanity of war and the quest to find meaning in an empty world. Meineck and the Aquila Theatre Company served up a model for how to adapt a classic from book to stage.