Fish Heads is about the futility of trying to transmit personal experience. A retired man who suffered horribly in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II is intent on commemorating the ordeal by never allowing it to be forgotten. So far, making sure it is remembered has been easy--every year on the anniversary of his liberation, he and his fellow survivors have gathered to reminisce. But now he is the only survivor--the only other one has just died of a heart attack. The play begins the day before the anniversary.
This premise has possibilities. Memories, in a sense, are reminders of death. They last only as long as we do; when we die, our memories die with us. And in a way, we are not completely dead until all those who remember us are dead too. So the old man in Fish Heads is fighting against death itself. If he can keep his memories alive somehow, he will achieve a form of immortality.
Any attempt to achieve immortality should have dramatic possibilities. Unfortunately, Fish Heads is a trite and clumsy first play by Liam Durnan, a Scottish immigrant who arrived in Chicago eight years ago. The characters are not believable, the plot is tedious, and the theme ultimately sputters and dies.
The old man is a resident of Kirkintilloch, Scotland. When the lights come up, he is sitting in front of the TV, watching a news report about a plane hijacking in Manchester, England. There's a knock at the door. He opens it, and in strides a rude, abrasive young bicyclist who needs directions to a bed-and-breakfast inn. The young man browses around the room as though he's in a shop, free to inspect the merchandise and ask questions. Yet, despite this outrageous invasion of his privacy, the old man instantly invites the cyclist to stay for the night, claiming his house is actually a bed-and-breakfast inn.
The rest of the first act consists of these two characters bickering. The young man, who's riding across England to raise money to feed starving people in Africa, wants to keep his bicycle in the house; his host wants him to keep it in the shed outside. The young man wants to clean the bike in the front room; the old man fusses about the mess. The young man brags about riding 120 miles that day; the old man claims the youngster rode to fast to see anything.
It takes the playwright an hour to establish the fundamental difference between the two characters--the young man's life is comfortable and trivial, while the old man has known horror and suffering.
In the second act, which takes place the next day, the old man tells his gruesome POW stories. But the anecdotes add little to the conflict between the characters. Sure, stories about capricious brutality are riveting, but they are not drama. This is supposed to be a play about the two men clashing because of the drastically different experiences they've had. That conflict evaporates in the second act, unless you consider a confrontation over eating fish heads a satisfying dramatic climax.
In fairness to the playwright, the failure of the production at the Playwrights' Center may be due partly to the actors--Joe Bowman as the man and Greg Rothman as the youth. On the surface, both turn in smooth and confident performances. Rothman is certainly obnoxious enough as the young man, and Bowman projects the fussiness of a lonely old man. Both have passable Scottish accents.
But the underlying tension between them never develops. For the play to work, there must be something menacing about the old man's determination to hold his guest hostage for a day, and the young man must appear to be fearful and intimidated. But the two characters merely bicker for a while, and then settle in for an afternoon of war stories.
The author's sympathies seem to be with the old man. He is the one with the stories to tell, and the young whippersnapper won't listen--he is riding too fast to see anything. But the old man is just as shortsighted. His own capacity for empathy is blocked by his preoccupation with his painful memories. This leaves the audience with a spat between two narcissists, and who cares about that?