How do you describe something that's too complex for words?
War, for example. We look back at the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War II, and feel confident about the righteousness of our cause. But more often than not, the clear call to battle becomes blurred by civilian casualties, by the deaths of young soldiers, and by a quagmire of justifications for our involvement.
Most people approach such a complex topic by narrowing their view and cherry-picking the evidence that supports their perspective. Playwright Steven Dietz, in his 2004 play Last of the Boys, takes an entirely different tack. He sidesteps language to make his most powerful arguments through symbols that are as emotional and complicated as war itself. You can see the results for yourself in the beautifully rendered production at Beowulf Alley Theatre Company.
Last of the Boys doesn't start out looking like a symbolic play. In fact, the set, created by designer Richard Talley and scenic artist Bill Galbreath, is astonishingly realistic. It conjures up a nearly abandoned trailer park, complete with rusted-out lawn furniture, a Dumpster, stacks of milk crates and an ancient refrigerator full of beer. The sky fades to black at the edges like an old photograph.
Living in a sand-blasted trailer, Vietnam veteran Ben (Gabe Nagy) is the park's only remaining resident; the area is possibly contaminated. Solitude appears to be his natural habitat, but it's disturbed by the arrival of his old Army buddy Jeeter (Clark Andreas Ray).
Jeeter is everything Ben is not. Ben is rooted and still; Jeeter travels the world chasing oddball quests and New Age healing. Ben keeps everyone at a distance, while Jeeter is desperate to be loved. And, most surprisingly, Jeeter appears to have deep respect for Ben's recently deceased father. Ben avoided the man in life and didn't attend his funeral—and is less than appreciative that Jeeter has brought him a suitcase full of his father's belongings.
Nagy and Ray are perfectly cast. Nagy can sometimes feel detached as an actor, a quality that serves him extraordinarily well here. His Ben feels like an outsider, even when speaking with friends, and his actions seem motivated by churning emotions that will never crack the surface. Even in his most powerful moments, he remains a compelling mystery.
Ray is a delight to watch as Jeeter, a man who seems to live entirely in the present. Like a time-lapse manic depressive, he jumps from anger to nostalgia to brotherly concern to whatever the next moment may bring. Ray disappears so completely into his character that it's hard to imagine he's not Jeeter in real life.
Dietz's characters live and breathe; they're so lifelike that you feel you might have met them in a bar somewhere. Paradoxically, his dialogue can sound artificial. When he tries to use the fragments and interruptions of common speech, the results can be stilted: "I have a plan." "A plan?" "Yes." "You have a plan." "Yes. A plan."
This quibble matters little, because these characters aren't just speaking for themselves; they're symbols of the vast, unseen group of people just like them. Jeeter still clings to the era of peace and love, teaching college courses like "The '60s as a Paradigm of Nonviolent Protest," stalking the Rolling Stones in his off time and searching for some magic to heal the lingering ache in his soul.
Ben tries to ease his own pain by clinging desperately to his belief in the rightness of America's role in Vietnam. But he's increasingly unable to fight off the ghosts of doubt that haunt him.
I mean ghost literally. When alone, with the sound of helicopter blades filling the air (the brilliant sound design is by Rachel Davis), Ben is repeatedly visited by the spirit of a young soldier (Lucas Gonzales). Bizarrely, Ben finds himself enacting the role of Robert McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam conflict who later expressed regret. McNamara is the voice both of Ben's beliefs and his fears.
These scenes—whether McNamara is defending the Gulf of Tonkin incident or desperately scrubbing a white shirt in a bucket of water—are the most richly, overtly symbolic in the play. They don't come to any conclusions about McNamara's guilt, or Ben's motivations, but they convey a deep, conflicted, nameless emotion.
Whether these appearances are hallucinations is called into question when Jeeter's girlfriend, Salyer (Royah Beheshti), turns up. Haunted by her own connection to the war—her father was drafted and killed before she was born—Salyer somehow sees the ghostly young soldier and is able to interact with him.
Beheshti's performance is satisfyingly complex. Her Salyer is a wounded soul wrapped in an abrasive personality. She moves the audience in the same way she manipulates the men around her, drawing them in, only to slap them away.
Salyer is also haunted by her very-much-alive mother, Lorraine (Mary Davis). Lorraine is consumed by rage at the loss of her husband. She's been tracking Salyer for weeks, planning to take her home and save her from yet another unsavory boyfriend, but she seems motivated less by love than by her fury at the brutal unfairness of life.
Davis' performance initially feels perhaps too abrasive, almost cartoonish. But as she opens up, she exposes emotional wounds so raw that it seems her anger is all that holds her together.
Director Susan Arnold has worked wonders with this production—choosing the right cast, helping the actors create detailed performances, and not backpedaling on the script's stylization. She has shaped a production that shies away from answers. Instead, she favors the shattered fragments of how we experience, perceive and remember Vietnam—and, by extension, the wars of today.
The result, like the play's own symbolism, is rich, complicated, emotional and not easily put into words.