at Mary-Arrchie Theatre
A play about soldiers coping with physical and emotional wounds? A play that questions America’s political and moral mission and its support of its fighting men? James McLure’s Pvt. Wars seems a shocking anachronism in the parades-and-platitudes atmosphere of post-gulf-war America. This is the kind of show politicians have in mind when they talk about the “Vietnam syndrome” and how the war with Iraq ended it. Originally presented in 1977 as a one-act and lengthened into two acts a decade later, Pvt. Wars portrays the odd comradeship that develops among men who have in common only the fact that they’ve fought and bled for their country–whether they knew why or not.
Set in the psychiatric ward of a veterans’ hospital, McLure’s play evokes Robert Altman’s film M*A*S*H in its deliberately uneven mixing of humor and sadness. The three characters are perfectly mismatched: Sylvio, a swaggering Italian American fixated on women and his own macho prowess; Gately, a gentle Georgia cracker resolved to maintain faith in the American system of “free enterprise”; and Natwick, an odd man out among these odd men, a Long Island preppie and probable latent homosexual whose intelligence and education make him acutely aware of his inadequacies.
At first the quirks in these fellows’ personalities make the play seem a standard servicemen’s comedy, replete with the usual coarse sex jokes, perverse pranks, and drunken male-bonding rituals. But gradually McLure lets us in on these privates’ private wars. Sylvio lost his genitals to shrapnel on the battlefield and has been institutionalized after exhibiting dangerous psychotic symptoms; Gately is mentally disabled and under near-constant sedation; Natwick’s suicidally depressive. Their edgy, unstable friendship becomes a way of holding on, tentatively and desperately, to something approaching a functioning life. They’re all they have.
Not much of this comes through in the Renegade Theatre’s current production, which emphasizes broad physical comedy over emotional sensitivity. The key to McLure’s play is that it has room for–and needs–both; it doesn’t get both here. Under Mark Liermann’s direction, the actors–Todd Tesen as Gately, Nelson Russo as Sylvio, and Karl Potthoff as Natwick–deliver engaging, energetic, and sometimes athletic performances. But they never suggest the intense fragility of their characters’ emotional states; these are sitcom goofballs, not real-life mental cases. Sylvio’s compulsive exhibitionism, Natwick’s nervous tics, and Gately’s fixation on repairing a radio for a dying man (“If one guy like me can fix a radio,” he keeps telling himself, “then America can work”) are funny quirks, not disturbing symptoms of deep-seated disarray. So when it comes time for the climactic dramatic payoff, we see it but don’t feel it–because nothing has paved the way.
What the production lacks in acting it makes up for visually. Over a realistic set (including a glass window with bars and a dingy black-and-white tiled floor), designer Ron Bieganski casts a vivid and varied lighting scheme that ranges from expressionistic green shadows to naturalistic lamplight to a beautiful yet eerie pink dawn that flows in through the window to signal the end of an all-night drinking binge.