Tracers | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe



Inn Town Players

Stereotypes play tricks on the mind. They encourage us to see things in a predetermined way, so we don't have to make the mental effort required to see things as they are. Consequently, stereotypes end up doing our thinking for us. They shape the way we think about ethnic groups, physicians, marriage, and mothers-in-law.

And they shape the way we think about war. Hollywood, that great illusion factory, has defined war as gruesome but glorious, an opportunity for men to give their all for a good cause. Even the Vietnam war, which shattered that stereotype, is undergoing a form of cinematic revisionism. The movie Hamburger Hill, for example, is a kissing cousin of Sands of Iwo Jima, which stars John Wayne, even though the battle for Hamburger Hill was anything but a glorious victory.

Tracers is valuable primarily because it defies the stereotypes about war. The play was developed by men who fought in Vietnam; the scenes are cut from the fabric of their own experience. John DiFusco, a Vietnam vet, invited six actors and a writer--also vets--to join him in improvising on their experiences in Vietnam. What emerged was a loosely connected series of scenes that revolve around six soldiers as they slog through a tour of duty in Vietnam.

This is war at the personal level, far beyond the generalizations that feed stereotypes. The soldiers in this play are just people. They're not heroes or cowards, good guys or villains. They're just grunts putting in their time, subject to the fears, ambitions, and disappointments that bedevil us all. Like the character who recognizes that the prostitutes he frequented in Vietnam "weren't whores . . . they were women, very special women," the creators of Tracers managed to find the humanity in these soldiers. The play works, despite its loose, fragmented structure, because the scenes are painfully honest and authentic.

Even cliches take on a fresh meaning. There's a prolonged scene about basic training, for example, with the drill instructor engaging in the ritual humiliation that disengages the recruits from the civilian world and transforms them into obedient killers. "While maggots are at attention, they will not talk, they will not eye-fuck the area, they will listen to me and only me," the DI bellows. "From this day forth, the first word out of a maggot's mouth is 'Sir,' the last word out of a maggot's mouth is Sir.'"

Basic training stories are a staple of every Marine's memory. Somehow the survivors of boot camp transform the pain, the push-ups, and the degradation into nostalgia. But in Tracers, basic training begins to look like a malevolent, mind-altering drug that enables ordinary young men to override the restraints of decency and compassion instilled in them from childhood. The training probably keeps them alive in the jungle, but it devastates their independence and sense of self.

Despite the hard edge of the basic training scene, it is still touched with the melodramatic intensity that permeates war movies. The DI tells the only black recruit that he's not black. "All my maggots are green," he says. "The only color maggots are issued in is green." In a soliloquy, the DI tells the audience that of the recruits, only "one in a hundred may become a warrior. I must seek him out. I must come down heavy on him. Upon him the success or failure of our present conflict lies."

But these sentiments come from real experience, so even the melodrama rings true. There's a sense of true-to-life anxiety that keeps the play fully charged as these recruits proceed to Vietnam, engage in firefights, get wounded, and die. There's even dramatic tension in the scenes where they're just sitting around, getting stoned and killing time.

Although the production of Tracers by Grassroot Arts (presented by the Inn Town Players) is short on energy, the seven-member cast manages to sustain the tension inherent in the play. Even on opening night, when one of the actors had to drop out at the last minute due to illness, the others picked up his lines with barely a hitch.

Joshua Witt does a fine job of projecting the tightly wound personality of Scooter, who turns to heavy drinking even as he criticizes the drug use of others. Armon DeFrantz Ransom seems to be in full control at all times--just like his character, Habu, the squad leader who compares killing to a football game. "A kill is just a touchdown," he says.

Kenneth Beider brings a nice smirk to his portrayal of Baby San, who gets transferred to the field from an office job in Saigon after angering his commander, Despite a lack of technique, Keith Belzer still captures the loud, oafish personality of Dinky Dau, who is badly shaken after killing his first Vietcong. ("I know he would've killed me if he had the chance," he keeps repeating like a mantra in a futile attempt to relieve his guilt.)

Todd Thurman is tentative as Professor (so named because he reads books), but he still hints at the complexity of his character, who remains aloof from the others in his squad so he won't be devastated if they get killed. And although William Warren looks far too frail to be a drill instructor, he delivers the lines with a nice sting and returns later in the far more suitable role of Doc, the medic who hands out malaria pills, gives shots, and discusses Hermann Hesse with the Professor.

The World War II veterans that Studs Terkel interviewed for his book The Good War all had vivid memories of combat. For many of them, the war was the central experience of their lives. "I remember every hour, every minute, every incident," said one vet.

Tracers is built on that same intensity of experience. It doesn't glorify war, and it doesn't wallow in "war is hell" platitudes. Like Terkel's book, it provides an opportunity for vets to reflect openly and honestly about what happened to them, making the play both an exorcism for those who experienced Vietnam and a powerful vicarious experience for those who didn't.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Add a comment