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To Hell and Back

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Place of Angels

A Red Orchid Theatre

By Justin Hayford

It took my father 50 years to tell anybody in the family what it was like to be at the D-day invasion. As a kid I'd heard one snippet from who knows where: on one of the many occasions he steered an LCT full of navy grunts from his ship to the beach, he stopped to rescue a tank crew caught in a sudden high tide. When he finally began to describe his experiences in sketchy detail, I was stunned to learn that it took six weeks to capture Omaha Beach, and that the ship my 23-year-old naval lieutenant father commanded was shelled every night during that time. "It might have been memorable," he said, "if I'd known I was going to survive."

Although my father was welcomed home as a conquering hero and, like tens of thousands of his fellow servicemen, given numerous perks stateside through the GI Bill, it was still half a century before he spoke openly about what happened off the coast of Normandy. So I'm rather awed that it took former marine Bob Adams half that time to come to terms with his military experience in Vietnam, considering the cloud of resentment and contempt that enveloped vets returning from that war. When he came home, no one wanted to hear about his year as a hospital corpsman in the jungle, risking his life every day to patch up wounded marines. "I would talk for a few minutes and get an uneasy reaction from people," he said in a recent Reader story, "so I just stopped talking."

Luckily for Chicago theater audiences, Adams has ended his silence and chronicled his harrowing, life-changing year in Place of Angels, receiving its premiere at A Red Orchid Theatre, performed by Jeff Still. Although Adams describes the piece as a play in a program note, it's a straightforward memoir without discernible dramatic structure. Themes and images recur, but the text is a simple chronology of events, with a haphazard, one-thing-after-another feel; halfway through the evening, it's hard to know how you got to where you are, or how you will ever get out.

Which is, in large part, Adams's point. Superimposing any kind of traditional structure over his narrative--conflict, rising action, crisis, climax, resolution--would be utterly false to the experience he wants to convey. His year in Vietnam seems to be directed--or more accurately, misdirected--by some capricious imp who can't decide from day to day if he wants a comedy, a tragedy, or a farce. Most days no one seems to be directing at all, and Adams is left to blunder along on his own, making the same poor judgment calls day in and day out while rockets explode all around him with the persistence of the jungle rain. He wanders through "a world I can't control and which doesn't care about me."

Yet Adams doesn't exhibit an ounce of self-pity in his text, readily acknowledging that it was his own stupidity and naivete that landed him in Vietnam. Having been kicked out of prep school for "being a goof," he and a buddy sign up with the navy after receiving two assurances: they won't be separated and they'll never get closer to battle than a half mile offshore. Within three days, however, his buddy is shipped off to God knows where and Adams volunteers to be a marine hospital corpsman, guaranteeing that he'll be in the thick of things during his yearlong tour.

That tour makes up the bulk of this 90-minute monologue. Despite the clear chronology, each march, each skirmish, each stretch of boredom seems interchangeable with any other. It is a year of isolated terrors--rocket attacks, surprise mortar fire, helicopter crashes, near starvation--that add up to nothing. Progress is never discernible; orders from top brass seem nonsensical. Without the ability to achieve any kind of perspective on his predicament, Adams's world shrinks to his tiny battalion of men who disappear randomly, either blown to bits or sent back home with a few hours' warning.

In elegant, bare-bones prose, Adams chronicles experiences most of us could hardly imagine. Even the simplest things--artillery fire, for example--achieve a startling immediacy thanks to his skill as a writer. "Imagine you're standing under the el tracks when two trains pass overhead," he writes. Then imagine an explosion that shatters every window in the Loop and sends shards of hot metal tearing through everything. "You hear it coming, you have no idea where it's going to hit, and you're not imagining it."

He also chronicles the ever-tightening bonds among the men in his battalion--male intimacy is one of the resounding themes of the work--as well as his own gradual descent into madness. Yet even in his gravest moments, Adams displays a lightness of touch, offering just enough detail to bring a scene to life but not enough to sink it into a mire of self-indulgence. This is no in-your-face memoir. He has no chip on his shoulder, never defies his audience to endure the horrors he experienced. He need only suggest, for you can feel the urgency behind his every phrase.

Paradoxically, it is Adams's ingenious omission of detail that gives the piece such vivid life. Instead of wasting time showing off his literary prowess with layers of expository prose, he writes like Edward Hopper painted, zeroing in on iconic scenes that, despite their dazzling brilliance, seem to float in a mysterious void. Adams's experience, in essence, could be any soldier's experience. Rather than asking us to pity him, he seems to want us to understand an entire generation of men traumatized in a nonsensical war.

Director Dexter Bullard has a keen understanding of the depersonalization that pervades Adams's text, creating stage pictures more emblematic than naturalistic. The elongated stage is empty save for a square wooden table atop which a bottle of Jameson and a carafe of water sit. This is no "set," and it doesn't transport us anywhere. Instead it suggests the opposing forces of purification and intoxication that tug at Adams throughout his ordeal.

Under Bullard's direction, Still turns in one of the smartest performances in recent memory. While most actors handling a text like this would make every effort to show us how deeply traumatized they can appear, Still proceeds with startling grace and reserve. When he learns that the buddy with whom he enlisted was killed in battle, for example, he doesn't bother with even the tiniest emotional display. It is a fact to be related, a 30-year-old wound that has healed.

Still maintains this reserve throughout the evening, making his few emotional outbursts all the more heart wrenching. It is clear that he has felt everything he describes as deeply as an actor can, and he speaks from the truth of those emotions, even though those emotions are not viscerally present. He understands that to communicate an emotion he needn't necessarily relive it, and his performance is extraordinarily moving.

Still's formality also allows him to speak as himself, rather than as an impersonator of Adams. In every moment Still makes it clear that he is telling a story that was told to him; he is not out to convince us that he has lived through experiences he probably can't imagine. He becomes a stand-in for Adams, just as Adams has made himself a stand-in for thousands of veterans. As a result, this production achieves a scope rarely seen on a Chicago stage. It is as though an entire generation is speaking before us.

Nathan Rankin died from AIDS-related complications on April 14. I first saw him in Cloud 42's harrowing production of Zero Positive, in which he performed with an exacting ferociousness that gave the production the terrifying edge it needed. That extraordinary combination of grace and menace typified his acting style, in shows like About Face's Boys in the Band, Roadworks' Disappeared, and Rivendell's Ghost in the Cottonwoods.

Ironically, his last role was as Roy Cohn in Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's Angels in America, but the way Rankin courageously confronted his disease--he didn't hide his diagnosis and participated in several AIDS Rides--couldn't have been more at odds with Cohn's cowardly, closeted ordeal. Rankin had suffered severe headaches during the show's final week but never missed a performance. A friend checked him into Illinois Masonic two days after the show closed.

A service will be held on Saturday at 2 PM at Herdegen & Brieske Funeral Home, 1356 W. Wellington. Call 773-525-0178 for more information.

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