Payton Vandal, Hannah Wold, & Conner Blankenship in Pvt. Wars. Photo by Spencer Korcz.
By James McClure
Directed by Spencer Korcz
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2017 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved
The scars carried home by combat veterans are often visible, but just as often they are invisible, at least to anyone who hasn’t had similar experiences. In Pvt. Wars, James McClure examined Vietnam veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome years before it was given that name.
The play premiered at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1979 as a short piece paired with McClure’s Lone Star as a single program. Lone Star arguably received the greater buzz, a showier piece overall. While Pvt. Wars has its bigger moments of slapstick comedy, it is a comparatively quieter and more introspective piece than its companion in that premiere. Later, McClure expanded the text to a full-length play, which is what The Alley Theater presents in this estimable production.
It is an actor’s piece, spare in setting but full of eccentricity and bluster. Gately (Payton Vandal) sits in a hospital mental ward working tirelessly on repairing a disassembled radio, a character of infinite patience and understanding. It’s never entirely clear why he has committed himself, as he never is given to behavior that would fit the cliché of “disturbed”. Sylvio (Hannah Wold) enters the room (as he will do throughout the action) with the force and energy of a tornado, drawing all the attention and making himself the focus of every scene. He habitually flashes the female nurses and adopts a macho swagger and lady-killer moxie that belies his Jerry Lewis manner. Natwick (Connor Blankenship) is an effete, New England upper crust that at first may be mistaken for a doctor (his slippers give him away) with his smug personality.
There isn’t much a plot in McClure’s episodic structure, and the disjointed quality of the play is why it misses being truly great, but the characters are engaging and the observations hold up nearly forty years later. To his credit, he doesn’t overanalyze these men, and, for the most part, lets the audience find their own understanding of what lies at their core. Gately is awkwardly given some unnaturally objective narrative commentary that fills in crucial details, and I think that comes at the expense of the character.
Payton Vandal makes his stage debut as Gately, and with the help of director Spender Korcz, plays it mostly straight, letting his physical presence and authoritative voice deliver the character with assurance. He stays still and never pushes himself, underplaying to good effect. Connor Blankenship is spot on as Natwick, supercilious and mannered in the appropriate way. His comic timing, dry delivery, and sideways glances are expertly delivered. Hannah Wold may be accused of overplaying Sylvio, and hers is the riskiest turn on display here, but she captures the desperation masking denial that seems essential for Sylvio, who is the one of the three men whose mental issue is the result of a traumatic physical mutilation. Wold attacks the role with confidence and specificity, making the question of cross-gender casting more or less irrelevant, depending on your politics I suppose.
By the end of the play, the three actors have formed a unit, feeding and playing off of each other with skill. Silvio is given a few scenes with an unseen counselor that never really gel with rest of the play, and they feel like a mistake. The heart of the play is the interaction with these three men, and the success of any production likely lies in the chemistry between the actors. On this count, Pvt. Wars must be counted a winner. McClure’s text doesn’t seem irrelevant or disconnected from what we know of veterans from more recent conflicts, so perhaps he tapped into a deeper enough truth all those years ago.
The Alley Theater has positioned Pvt. Wars to coincide with Veterans Day, and is donating 100% of the ticket sales from the Monday, November 13, and Sunday, November 19 performances to the Robley Rex VA Medical Center on Zorn Avenue.
November 9 – 25 @ 8:00pm
Beer and snacks are available at the bar.
Go to thealleytheater.org for exact schedule for each production and tickets.
The Alley Theater
615 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.