Arts & Entertainment
War, What Is It Good For? The Opening Show At UDM Theatre Company
By John Quinn
Originally printed 10/3/2013 (Issue 2140 - Between The Lines News)
Call it serendipity, coincidence or just plain luck, some theater companies choose a production months in advance only to find its theme splashed across the metaphorical front page of the national news media opening week. But perhaps David L. Regal, artistic director of the University of Detroit Mercy Theatre Company, has illustrated Bob Dylan's observation: "You don't need a weather man/To know which way the wind blows." James McLure's 1979 dark comedy, "Pvt. Wars," opens the Theatre Company's 43rd season. Although 34 years have passed, the play's relevance is eerie - and a little disturbing.
Narrative artists have turned to absurdist genres to cope with the senselessness of war, most notably Joseph Heller with "Catch 22" and the film and TV iterations of "M*A*S*H." But "Pvt. Wars" doesn't deal with active combat; its focus is the "spoils" of war - the spoiled bodies and minds of combat veterans.
The place is a VA hospital; the time, 1972. The U.S. involvement in the morass that is Vietnam drags on, but for three enlisted men, combat is over. Their personal battles linger. Gately (first year theater major Greg Ettleman), slow and methodical, is a Georgia farm boy perseverating over a radio repair. Ohioan Silvio (Theatre Company alumnus Patrick O'Connor Cronin) is a hyperactive prankster and self-described psychotic. Their foil is the overly dramatic Natwick (Dax Anderson, also a UDM alum), the scion of Long Island wealth.
McLure's narrative structure parallels the main motif of "Pvt. Wars," and production director Regal misses no opportunity to drive the point home. That theme is "fragmentation." The two acts comprise short vignettes rather than scenes, and while time progresses in good order, the narrative reveals the backstory at unexpected moments.
A sense of disconnection is omnipresent. Variations on the theme begin with Melinda Pacha's set, a common room for hospital patients, which evokes imagery of a building smashed by an artillery barrage. Rudy Schuepbach's rapid fire lighting is completely complementary. But it's in the performances that this production so ably illuminates McLure's vision.
In analyzing a performance, one doesn't know for sure where some character traits originate - whether with the playwright or in the synergy between director and actor. "Pvt. Wars" shows a wealth of originality at the local level. While the script is terribly funny - laugh-through-tears funny - insightful choices have enriched the characters.
I have had the pleasure of seeing Cronin and Anderson in action before; watching them take McLure's characters and craft something thoroughly their own is great fun. Outstanding, though, in an already outstanding production is Regal and Ettleman's joint effort in creating Gately. His slow, deadpan delivery is a counterpoint to the more aggressive line readings of his colleagues; and, in a play where lines recur again and again, the laughs are increasingly hearty. But Gately is not a superficial character. He is the victim of an unrevealed horror which has torn his mind like shrapnel has torn his companions' bodies. Ettleman's delicate balance demonstrates he's more than capable of playing with the older lads.
If the three damaged privates of "Pvt. Wars" aren't over the coo-coo's nest, they're flying pretty close to it. But on reflection, one wonders if the real crazies are in or out of the asylum. Gately observes, "If everyone just fought their own private wars, then everything would be alright. But no! People have to stick their noses into other people's wars ..."
The United States has been fighting other people's wars since Truman sent troops into Korea against the advice of his military commanders. When will that end? Aaron Alexis was under "the delusional belief that he was being controlled or influenced by extremely low frequency electromagnetic waves" before he embarked on his shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard. The Navy and the Veterans' Administration didn't help him; the Rhode Island police were prevented by law from helping him. It would seem in this country there's "no place for wild and wounded animals." When will that end?
University of Detroit-Mercy Theatre Company at Marygrove College Theatre, 8425 W. McNichols Road, Detroit. Friday-Sunday through Oct. 6. 2 hours. $5-20. 313-993-3270. http://theatre.udmercy.edu