Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Things They Carried (Playhouse Square Center)


Every once in a while a theatre-goer has an experience in which the images developed by writer and the actors envelopes him or her and remains for a long time. I had such an experience when I saw ‘THE THINGS THEY CARRIED,’ a contemporary literature piece about the writer’s Vietnam War experiences, which was presented at the Idea Center of Playhouse Square as part of their Discovery series.

The one-man play is based on Tim O’Brien’s best selling book about the Vietnam war. In reality, it’s more than a book about the war. It is a series of stories creatively written with the intimacy of a searing autobiography. It is also a mirror held up to the frailty of humanity. It also is a great catalyst for thinking about the present Iraqi conflict. Much of the discussion during the after-talk centered on the parallels of the deceptive, misguided and ego-centered thinking which carried this country into both conflicts.

Since it was first published, ‘THE THINGS THEY CARRIED’ has become an unparalleled Vietnam testament, a classic work of American literature and a profound study of men at war and how war affects not only the combatants, but those left at home and those living where the battles are fought.

The title of the book and the play centers on what the soldiers carried: malaria tablets, love letters, 28-pound mine detectors, dope, illustrated Bibles, and each other. And, if they made it home alive, they carried unrelenting images of a nightmarish war that history is only beginning to absorb.

The play, which has been developed into both a 30-minute version to be showcased in junior and senior high schools as the center of a discussion about war, and an hour version to be presented in commercial venues, goes beyond the book. The play starts as we share with O’Brien, who has just graduated from college and is readying to go for his master’s degree at Harvard, the emotion of receiving his draft notice. O’Brien, who objects to the war, is caught between family and community loyalty and his desire to flee. We travel with O’Brien to the Canadian border, share his decision not to cross into the unknown, getting drafted, fighting in the war, and returning a different person from when he left. A person who now carries emotions and experiences he would rather not have as part of his life baggage.

The play was developed in a collaboration between O’Brien, the play’s director, Wynn Handman, actor Dashiel Eaves and cellist Mark Wind. The full-length version is getting its world premiere in Cleveland.

Handsome, intense and talented Eaves is compelling in the role of O’Brien. He does not portray O’Brien, he is O’Brien. I found myself so enmeshed with Eaves that I forgot I was in a theatre. His every nuance helped activate all of my senses. I saw Canada so close, but so far away. I smelled the burning flesh of the buffalo that was senselessly slaughtered. I saw the one legged boy. I heard the helicopters overhead, the bombs exploding. My eyes welled when his did as he recollected his emotional reactions. This was one proficient, very proficient performance.

Wind has created haunting music. He sets the mood, makes transitions and underscores ideas with perfectly written and played sounds.

The talk back after the show was also a unique experience. The audience, which included a humanities class from a Michigan high school, asked pointed and intelligent questions. Both cellist Wind and actor Eaves displayed a depth of knowledge about the war and the project beyond the script.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: It’s a shame that ‘THE THINGS THEY CARRIED’ only had a three-day run. It is the kind of presentation that could have had a long open-ended run and developed a cult following. I will long remember the experience!