Dark Ladder Ensemble

A commodity that should be classified as war surplus: all those martial-themed shows precipitously assembled by theater companies hoping to exploit Persian Gulf war fever, only to be left high and dry by an armistice as swift and sudden as the skirmish that preceded it. Some of these were recycled Vietnam-war plays (Terrence McNally’s Next from BDI and Bringing It All Back Home from Red Bones). Some were adaptations of pacifist polemics (Dead Soldier Walks Home, which the Performers Under Stress had the good luck or sense to close before George Bush’s extravaganza finished its run). Others were original works, hastily thrown together with minimal research but lots of gung-ho enthusiasm by earnest young playwrights whose personal knowledge of war frequently consisted of little more than the unshakable belief that it is hell. Peacetime makes this no less true, but it’s tougher for theater companies to Make a Statement without the audience adrenaline to camouflage the ragged edges of their agitprop constructions: inadequate research, insufficient rehearsal, and–the factor that lost us the Vietnam war–lack of a clear objective.

Dark Ladder Ensemble’s world premiere production of The War Notebooks purports to give an overview of four wars through the letters of the soldiers and civilians of each period, which have been adapted for the stage by ensemble members Vic Flessas and Valerie Gorman. Representing the Civil War are three volunteers from Company K–Private Alex Chisholm, his brother Corporal Daniel Chisholm, and one Sergeant Samuel Clear. World War I is covered by three dissenters–the English philosopher Bertrand Russell; the Polish-born socialist Rosa Luxemburg, and Vera Brittain, a Frenchwoman who becomes a pacifist after the deaths of her brother and her fiance. Reporting on World War II is John Horn Burns, author of the autobiographical novel The Gallery, and his two comrades, identified only by their ranks of sergeant and private first class. The Vietnam-war quartet consists of Kid, a 17-year-old marine enlistee; Grad, an elitist ROTC trainee; Joker, now confined to a wheelchair; and Nurse, who joined the Army to add some excitement to her career. The script includes selections from Walt Whitman, T.E. Lawrence, Pablo Neruda, H.H. Munro, several uncredited poets published in W.D. Ehrhart’s anthology of Vietnam-war poetry Carrying the Darkness, and many other unidentified writers.

A century and a quarter is a lot of history to cover in one evening. The absence of antiwar protest–except in the last piece on the program, the three-hankie Vietnam-war weeper “A Mother’s Letter,” and in the World War I section, in which no voices are heard except those of dissent–tends to distort our perception of the worldwide response to the conflicts. The Our Town style of presentation, with the actors breaking character in full view of the audience (Joker blithely rises up from his wheelchair and strolls about the offstage area before resuming his paraplegic persona) compounds the identity confusion already engendered by the sprawl of the narrative and the multiple-role casting. The Stage Manager, who bridges the various segments with annotative commentary, is irritatingly unnecessary, contributing nothing that couldn’t be better accomplished by a few program notes. (More program notes would have been nice for another reason too–I would have liked to have learned the names of more of the people who are quoted in the play.)

Even with these flaws, The War Notebooks might have been redeemed by careful execution. Unfortunately it didn’t get this. The production’s major handicap is its performance space, the cavernous upstairs hall at the United Church of Rogers Park, with its airplane-hangar echo and its haunted-house floor. All the incidental noise renders an exorbitant portion of the dialogue unintelligible, even from front row center. The acoustics also cripple the actors, who must restrict themselves to the loudest part of their vocal ranges; those who don’t (mostly the more literary dissenters) all but disappear into the vacuum of architecturally generated white noise.

Not everything in the production is doomed, though: the World War II segments, drawn from The Gallery, shine brilliantly, largely due to a splendid performance by Shawn Douglas as the sensitive Burns, ably supported by Steve Savage as the intellectual private first class and Danny Ahlfeld as the sensual sergeant. Neil Wycoff and Tracey Atkins, as Joker and Nurse, also have moments that ring true (the latter’s story of ejecting a visiting Miss America from an Army hospital almost convinced me that she had been a nurse in Vietnam).

The remainder of the cast, however, recite their speeches with a blank-faced placidity (except James Harvey, who makes Bertrand Russell sound disturbingly like John Cleese). With no firsthand knowledge of the wartime experience–or even secondhand, since the program lists no dramaturge or researcher–the actors should have looked for analogies from their own lives on which to base their performances (being in a fire, say, or a life-threatening accident). If the actors couldn’t find such footholds, it was up to the director to suggest them. But Flessas, who also doubled as sound designer (a good one–the music is great), publicist, and who knows what else, appears to have spread himself too thin, to the detriment of his cast. Nearly all of the company, as a matter of fact, seem to be doing so many things that they don’t have the time to do anything well.

“Most people have to go to the movies to bawl,” observes one of Burns’s sidekicks. The War Notebooks will do for sentimental civilians seeking the opportunity for a good cry, but it’s unlikely to shed any light on the lives and principles of the people who fought in or against war. Dark Ladder has plenty of heart; next time it should add a little more brawn and a few more brains.