Drawing inspiration from the 1971 Stanford prison experiment—in which participants behaved in shockingly appalling ways when cast as prisoners and guards—Steinkellner weaves a terrifying yarn about police-state conditions and the aftermath of military occupation. Set in an unnamed place and time that bear a striking resemblance to a slightly futuristic American small town, the story centers on Anna (an entirely arresting Paige Lindsey White), chief guard and skilled torturer at a recently abandoned prison camp. When the regime she has been supporting pulls up stakes, Anna refuses to leave her post, preferring to sleep on a grimy cot and keep company with the Prisoner (Emmalinda MacLean), a bloodied ghost who personifies Anna's waning sanity.
As the story unfolds along two timelines, we see how Anna became the cold-blooded murderer she is today, while we watch her struggle to forgive herself for her bloody crimes. Steinkellner imbues the character of Anna with so much unyielding mental anguish, it's sometimes painful to watch. With an acute sense of Anna's proximity to complete mental breakdown, White gives a wild-eyed performance that somehow stays on the right side of controlled craft. Sarah Kay Watson plays Anna's betrayed sister with enough brazen sharp edges to skin a cat.
Several of Anna's dead victims float in and out of the story, and their monologues reveal fascinating truths about the nature of imprisonment and the fear of freedom that many prisoners develop. Survivors of the regime are traumatized for life. If war is hell, the ensuing peace is the ninth circle.
Presented by Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble at the Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica. Oct. 21–Nov. 13. Thu.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. (Also Wed., Nov. 10, at 8 p.m.) www.latensemble.com.