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Play tackles technology, trust

Who can you really trust?

That’s one of the questions inventor Charles Lang has to ask himself after he’s has made a technological breakthrough that will forever change society. It isn’t long before those who are meant to help him want to prevent the invention from seeing the light of day.

The Oasis Theatre Company’s staging of the “The Water Engine,” David Mamet’s Depression-era drama written in 1977, will be at Teatro Paraguas until Feb. 25.

The play, originally written for radio, was later adapted for the stage by using additional actors to portray radio hosts telling the story, making this show a “play within a play.”

“The Water Engine” takes place in the midst of the Chicago 1934 World’s Fair and follows Lang, a factory worker and inventor. With the help of his blind sister Rita, he invents an engine that runs completely on water.

His luck turns when the lawyers who are supposed to help him patent the game-changing invention also have loyalties to major oil corporations, and they will go to any length to stop him.

After Lang and Rita fall victim to the lawyers, they face the dilemma of whether they trust anyone enough to pass along their sacred invention, to give it a chance despite whatever happens to them.

With a few minor changes, Lang’s story could easily be something written today, said Matthew Montoya, the local actor portraying the lead character.

“You could just switch out the water engine for a solar engine and this could be a play from 2017,” he said.

Director Brenda Lynn Bynum said she was attracted by the show’s relevance, whether it’s the technological side of the story, the idea of corporations versus the little guy and even allusions to political unrest, along with universal themes of trust and the inter-connectedness of all people.

Talia Pura, Karen Gruber Ryan and Nicholas Ballas in “The Water Engine.” (Courtesy of Brenda Lynn Bynum)

She described it as a suspense or thriller. Monyota agreed, likening the period piece to a film noir.

“(Lang) created something that would be beneficial to a lot of people, but might put a lot of big, important people out of business,” he said. “They have to protect their best interests, and I think that plays out into the suspense and the intrigue, and the wondering who is who and who has what motives.”

But according to Bynum, Lang and his sister really aren’t aware of the impact something like his motor could have on the world. And the actors aren’t sure about Lang’s motivation for trying to fight off the big-business villains.

Montoya describes his character as a prideful man who wants the control of seeing the product made the way he envisioned. Tallis Rose, who plays Rita, said she sees a “dark self-fulfillment” side in the couple as well, not just among those trying to keep the water engine from the public. More than anything, the two characters see the invention as their ticket to a better life, she said.

“It doesn’t seem like anyone is trying to change the world for the better,” said Rose. “Maybe they’re trying to change themselves for the better, or maybe their situation for themselves for the better, but it’s all like this possession.”

The cast of six, including Montoya and Rose, plays several characters within the performances. Shows continue until Feb. 25.