Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Mesmerizing, emotion-laden “Last of the Boys” at none too fragile

It is ironic that the same weekend that Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 18-hour PBS documentary series “The Vietnam War” started screening, none too fragile theater brought up the lights on its intimate stage to showcase Steven Dietz’s Vietnam memory play, “Last of the Boys.”

An award-winning playwright, Dietz is one of the nation’s new breed of writers who are noted as being “prolific and versatile” and in search of showcasing modern problems.  With his mastery of language and ability to create complex and dynamic characters and tell stories, he could qualify as the Arthur Miller or William Inge of the twenty-first century.

As for “Last of the Boys,” Dietz says, “though the play reflects on the events of the Vietnam era it is not a historic play.  This is about a world in which the same hard choices keep presenting themselves.” 

Those hard choices include asking:  What are the toxic results of horrific experiences of fighting in a war?  Should we blame others for their urging us to make certain life changes?  Can we forgive the mistaken beliefs of others that have an effect on our lives?  How long do fearsome memories haunt a person?  And, can we hide from our past?

The story centers on Ben, a Vietnam war vet who lives in a California trailer park situated on a toxic wasteland, and his war buddy, Jeeter, a hippy, modern age college professor, who is obsessed with the Rolling Stones and follows them around the world on their concert tours. 

Though the war is forty years in the past, much of the duo’s relationship and identity center on the haunting effects of their battle experiences, especially on Ben, who has nightmares and sees illusions of military men and Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense, at the time of the conflict.

Jeeter comes for his annual visit, accompanied by Salyer, his new girlfriend.  The couple goes to Ben’s father’s funeral, which Ben does not attend.  (The reason rolls out as the play develops).  Shortly after the funeral, Lorraine, Salyer’s alcoholic mother, shows up.

What ensues is an examination of identities, angst and revelations, including the 1967 incident outside of Dak To which changed Ben and Jeeter’s lives forever, and why Salyer encases her entire body in a layer of black clothing.

As has become the pattern at none too fragile, the production is compelling.  Director Sean Derry hits all the right vocal and blocking notes in developing the story and highlighting Dietz’s razor sharp language.

Skinny, balding, pinched faced, with hollow vacant eyes, Rob Branch is the requisite image of the PSTD remains of the human once known as Ben.  His tortured-being shines through.

Paul Floriano makes Jeeter a physical and emotional being stuck in the 1960s.  He seeks peace, literally and figuratively, through reliving the flower-child era in his life style and attitudes, unable to move forward.

Rachel Lee Kolis is appropriately angst filled, having been forced to live a life of lies created by her alcoholic, pathetic mother (Anne McEvoy) who, like the others, refuses to face reality.

Nate Homolka effectively develops the role of the phantom soldier, appearing as needed to help fulfill fantasy.

Capsule judgement:  War is hell and, as highlighted in “Last of the Boys,” its aftermath is often worse.  Kudos to Sean Derry and his cast for creating a compelling evening of theater.  This is must see theater for anyone interested in fine acting and a more real than life picture of the outcomes of combative and emotional wars on human beings.

 “Last of the Boys” runs through September 30, 2017 at none too fragile theater, 1835 Merriman Road, Akron.  For tickets call 330-671-4563 or go to nonetoofragile.com

The next none too fragile show is Keith Huff’s “A Steady Rain” from October 27-November 11.