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Scarred Ground


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Victory Gardens Studio Theater

Late in Thomas Cadwaleder Jones's Scarred Ground, a mysterious Vietnam veteran says, "I can't tell you what it was like. You have to get inside the wall." The wall, of course--where the play is set--means the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. And vet C.G. Cobb's line neatly encapsulates the central dramatic necessity of this play, now being given its world premiere at Victory Gardens Studio Theater: to understand the causes and effects of war while at the same time acknowledging the impossibility of such a task. The only way to know it is to live through it. Yet even those who have lived through it, like Cobb, come away feeling lost and confused.

In an attempt to dramatize this struggle to know the unknowable, Jones has created in addition to Cobb (Craig Spidle) two young adults who both lost their fathers to the Vietnam War. Alexandra (Moon Hi Hanson) and Millard (L. Kent Brown) meet at the wall, where they have come to find their fathers' names. Alexandra is a desperately frightened black girl from the big city who compensates for her insecurities--in a series of unfortunately interchangeable scenes--by trying to prove herself to Millard. Millard is a simple and glaringly naive Arkansas boy who has never had to really talk to a black person before, has never had to think about a black person as someone "real." We watch their relationship develop throughout this two-act drama, as each learns to trust someone he would ordinarily avoid.

Clearly Jones wants to dramatize more than simply the attempt to understand war and heal its wounds. He also wants to look at the equally impossible task of understanding another person. Alexandra's and Millard's relationship is continually threatened by racism, to which Alexandra seems acutely sensitive and of which Millard seems good-naturedly unaware. Their relationship is also threatened by their own romantic expectations. Though Millard continually reminds Alexandra that they are not romantically involved, he's also nearly paralyzed with fear at the thought that passing strangers might see them as a couple. And their relationship is threatened by Alexandra's history of sexual abuse, which has left her terrified and well guarded.

There is so much material here for theatrical exploration, and once in a while Jones does create a compelling and complex moment. Early in the first act, for example, Millard sees Cobb for the first time, dressed in his fatigues, and exclaims, "Look at him! That's what it was like! He looks like the photos in Life magazine!" What's interesting here is the way reality folds back on itself. Cobb is the real thing, or rather the remnant of the real thing, but the only way that Millard can understand and personalize him is to see him as a journalistic photograph. It's sad to see this well-intentioned boy so duped by a media-saturated culture. (In the same way, he identifies with his father only because in an old photo he looks like James Dean.)

But for the most part Jones's play fails--because his sense of drama is so weak and because the world he has created seems so unfocused. Alexandra and Millard are generalized types --their problems never seem specific and therefore real. Millard's search for a father figure seems cliched because his anguish is not unique in any way. Jones seems to have created Alexandra and Millard as symbols and mouthpieces, without giving them depth or authenticity. Thus the center of the play is hollow, and the emotions produced become cheap.

The question that Jones seems to have overlooked is: Why do these two people need to be with each other at this moment in their lives? Why does Alexandra latch onto Millard, and vice versa? You could say that they're both lonely or in pain, but this would be a stronger drama if we could see that Millard has some specific need that Alexandra meets, or that Alexandra projects some particular fantasy onto Millard. As it is, we have to accept on faith that being together is better for these two than being apart.

Jones's script is also highly contrived--despite a concerted suspension of disbelief, at times I was unable to accept the events onstage. The play begins, in fact, with a dangerously unlikely event. Studying the names on the wall, Millard stumbles over Alexandra, who immediately produces a knife and tries to stab him. Two minutes later he asks, "What's your name?"

Jones also tries to find dramatic significance in seemingly trivial moments, a commendable device that here falls rather flat. The details that Jones picks seem so trivial that they collapse under the metaphoric weight he tries to place on them. Late in the first act, Cobb convinces Millard to pierce his ear--to make a "permanent" mark on himself, to in effect go through a rite of passage. Not only does such a decision seem particularly mundane for Millard, who has dyed his hair bright pink, but piercing an ear is hardly permanent, a fact that drains the image of most of its power.

Cobb is the most strongly written character if only because he is so idiosyncratic. He commands the second act, recounting a fantastic tale of seeing General MacArthur in the middle of an Indian attack in Nebraska. Spidle gives Cobb a manic yet somehow gentle energy. He is at once threatening and necessary, as he forces Millard and Alexandra to confront ugly moments from their pasts. Highly intuitive, Cobb always seems to know what the other two really feel; though superficially he's a burnt-out vet trapped in a world decidedly not the here and now, he's also a catalyst for change.

Philip Euling's direction is rather hesitant and unfocused, which means this repetitious play seems to inch along. Often the three actors are lined up, facing the audience, and so ill at ease that they awkwardly shift their weight back and forth. Hanson and Brown are about equally uncomfortable as Alexandra and Millard, delivering their lines cautiously and at times flatly.

I had the impression that the play has simply not been fully explored. Jones's script has a few interesting impulses, but these are not followed through on, in the same way that Hanson and Brown have not followed through on their characters. Perhaps no one has given Scarred Ground sufficient time to develop on any count.

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