Tom Wideline was almost glad when the Burbage Theatre production of "Red River Rats" closed last month. When he won the part of Woo Woo Walenski, he wasn't prepared for the personal impact of playing a former fighter pilot shot down over Vietnam. He hadn't expected the story of the annual reunion of POWs to evoke such profound memories of his own incarceration in foreign territory.
Back in 1979, while backpacking his way around
the world, Wideline was tossed into an Iraqi prison for failing to have his passport properly stamped. After several weeks of physical and mental abuse, he was released.
He began a mostly successful hiatus from thinking about the ordeal. Then came "Red River Rats," in which characters recall their experiences at the hands of the Viet Cong.
"At the end, when one character, Jungle, talks about how he was tortured, it made me think about Iraq," Wideline says. "About how the prisoner in the cell across from mine was beaten for eight hours. Then it stopped, and the next day there was blood everywhere.
"I kept waiting for my time to be tortured. You have no sleep, no sense of time. All you hear is this constant moaning. The play brought back that sense of constant fear."
Still, Wideline contends that being in the play was a positive experience: "For the first time in 15 years, I've had to come to grips with what happened and to start talking about it."
A positive experience, of course, isn't necessarily a good experience. "I also hated being in this play," Wideline says, "because after the performance I would come home and think about the box and the light and the screams, the constant screaming. It took me a long time to go to bed."