New World Repertory Company
at Theatre Shoppe
In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language” George Orwell stated that writers often use cliches not as expressions of original thought but as substitutes for thinking. Something similar, I suspect, happened during the creation of Heroes’ Welcome, the premiere production of the New World Repertory Company. But rather than use verbal cliches, playwright Linnea Forsberg built her story almost entirely out of media cliches about the Vietnam war.
Set on Christmas Day 1970 in the spinal ward of the Great Lakes Naval Hospital, the play focuses on four badly damaged Vietnam veterans. John Foster is paralyzed on his right side, the result of stepping on a land mine. Joel Webster is in a coma caused by a bad fall. Randy Davis is the comic relief–he babbles and mugs incessantly as the result of a brain injury. (“Stewardess, bring me a drink,” he hollers at the nurse, suddenly convinced he’s on an airplane.)
But the main character is Ed Nagel, who is paralyzed from the waist down. Ed wasn’t injured by sniper fire or shrapnel; he severed his spinal cord while on leave, when he went surfing. Ed is extremely bitter about his predicament. Like Ron Kovic, author of the autobiographical Born on the Fourth of July, Ed is haunted by an atrocity he committed in Vietnam and tormented by his disability. His brother told him he’d be better off dead, and Ed sort of agrees with that assessment. He could go home to his girlfriend Jenny (Angela Stanford), but he refuses, even though he hates the hospital. Like the Jon Voight character in the film Coming Home, he tries to have sex with a pretty nurse, Lieutenant White (Laurie Dawn), who’s particularly turned on because they’re re-creating a scene from Charles Vidor’s film of A Farewell to Arms in which a wounded soldier takes a nurse into his hospital bed. “In A Farewell to Arms all you see are Jennifer Jones’s feet disappearing above the curtain,” she coos.
The dialogue is bland, but it is rendered even less exciting by the actors, under the direction of Richard Kirk, who inject little personality into their characters. As Ed, Richard Shavzin maintains the same lifeless expression throughout, as though he’s paralyzed from the neck up as well as from the waist down. Sure he’s depressed, but even when roused to anger he changes his demeanor very little. Steve Gillam portrays John as sweet but passionless. When he gets riled enough to fling some cranberry sauce at Ed, he doesn’t seem really upset. Even during the obligatory pot-smoking scene–a staple of Vietnam books, films, and plays–John doesn’t change.
Eric Francque, of course, is supposed to be lethargic, since his character, Joel, remains in a coma almost the entire play. Chris Serpa shows a bit of life as the delirious Randy, but acts more like a high school cutup than a brain-damaged soldier. And Renardo Bell gives a flat performance as Corpsman Ericson, the good-hearted black orderly–another familiar figure from Vietnam literature.
Yet even outstanding performances couldn’t give life to this aimless collection of hackneyed images.