And when visitors to the elegant memorial designed by Maya Lin leave letters and mementos behind, they do it not for the benefit of their dead loved ones, but to ensure we remember them.
That's also the goal of the moving epistolary play Touch the Names: Letters to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which Arizona Theatre Company is presenting now through Nov. 4 at the Temple of Music and Art.
A multicultural, multigenerational cast of eight actors brings to life the mostly anonymous letter writers, reciting real excerpts from their missives to their lost brethren.
Touch the Names was co-conceived by director Randal Myler and singer-songwriter Chic Street Man, who appears in the production, playing blues guitar and singing commentary like a Greek chorus. "When you stand by my name, you touch me," he sings in a light tenor that may remind some listeners of John Sebastian with a hint of Robert Cray.
There's the grown man who never knew his father, but visits the memorial to talk to him about his grandkids. There's a former military boat operator who can't go fishing, because he doesn't like the "reflections he sees in the water."
There are mothers and fellow soldiers and high school buddies and girlfriends and daughters and sons, all assembled to remember their lost loved ones. "Pain and loss never goes away," says one letter writer. "It just changes."
At about 80 minutes long and performed without an intermission, Touch the Names is intended to be an ensemble work, in which the personalities and styles of the actors are necessarily subordinated to the several voices they each re-create.
That said, some of the performers stand out, most notably Ray Anthony Thomas, who brings a delicate touch to his portrayal of a field doctor who relates the tale of watching a young soldier (one of many) die. Charles Weldon also is wonderful as an old soldier who somehow survived when most of his unit died; he delivers a touching soliloquy during a scene in which the effect of rain is gorgeous.
Subtle, quiet staging sometimes brings one or two other actors to the stage behind those delivering their lines, frozen in tableaux of thought against the stark, beautiful re-creation of the memorial wall by set designer Vicki Smith.
The bulk of Touch the Names feels meaningful, powerful and real, but any project that is the result of selections from among thousands of pages of source material is sure to confront a little criticism about what was put in and left out.
This production is no exception. A few of the monologues feel forced and generic, but they are over soon enough. One misstep that seems to last forever, though, is an overwrought speech about peeling oranges, an extended metaphor delivered by a Vietnamese woman taken from her family.
No matter your opinion about the legitimacy of the war, or your feelings on the afterlife, this play recognizes and respects the memories that we among the living still carry with us, these ghosts and angels who gave up their lives in Vietnam.
Several ancillary events will be presented alongside Touch the Names during its run.
The Tucson Chapter 106 of Vietnam Veterans of America is presenting an exhibit at the Temple of Music and Art of personal memorabilia from the Vietnam War before and after each performance of the play.
ATC is inviting all former service members to attend the 2 and 7 p.m. performances of Touch the Names on Sunday, Oct. 28. Admission will be free to veterans.
Also on Oct. 28, staff from ATC will read personal letters from members of the Tucson community to loved ones who served in past wars. The readings, to be held in the courtyard of the Temple of Music and Art, will be at noon and 5 p.m., and they're open to the public.
Following the 2 p.m. performance on Oct. 28, cast and Vietnam vets will join in a panel discussion. Post-show discussions also will be held following the shows at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 30 and 31.