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Last of the Boys

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Beyond Glory

Goodman Theatre

Few productions are as timely as those being presented at Steppenwolf Theatre and the Goodman on the nature and purpose of war. But on this subject above all others rigor is essential–sorting truth from falsehood to prevent storytelling about war from turning into misleading mythmaking.

Steven Dietz’s Last of the Boys at Steppenwolf purports to be a critique of such mythmaking when in fact it’s a florid example of it. Unfortunately, Last of the Boys is unlikely to be “Last of the Plays Putting the War in Vietnam in Context” because, as Dietz amply if inadvertently demonstrates, never was a war so flawlessly designed for hijacking, like a BMW sitting in a driveway with its keys in the ignition. Want to condemn government arrogance and dishonesty? You’ve got behavior that makes the response to Katrina look like the best of good government. Want to point out the slippery slope buried in the desire for regime change? You’ve got the uber-Rumsfeld, former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara. Want symbols of lost innocence? Regrets? Reverberations? You’ve got symbols, regrets, echoes galore. Step right up.

But regretting the past–that it is past, that it didn’t measure up, that the present doesn’t measure up–isn’t in itself a dramatic activity. As one of Dietz’s characters observes, “News flash: time passes.” When Jamie Tyrone or Willy Loman mourns past events, he’s struggling to break free of regret and move forward. Without that struggle, mourning is mere bathos. That’s no less true because a war figures in the lamented past.

Dietz’s characters aren’t struggling–they’re wallowing, and in well-trodden Southeast Asian mud. Last of the Boys is part In Country, Bobbie Ann Mason’s novel about a young girl who worships her long-dead Vietnam-vet father, and part The Big Chill, complete with untimely deaths and unfinished business. Jeeter, a professor whose career has consisted of chewing over the 60s, arrives at the trailer of his Vietnam comrade Ben after the funeral of Ben’s father, an aide to McNamara: Jeeter attended, Ben didn’t. Jeeter has come to demand Ben’s approval of his impending marriage to a much younger woman he’s known for 17 days. After the two men trade old tales, listen to old songs, and drink beer out of an old Coke cooler, Jeeter’s girlfriend, Sal, turns up avid for war stories. Soon afterward her mother arrives, as does a mysterious soldier who may or may not be a hallucination. And then it’s time for a free-for-all of cross-generational, cross-gender, time-traveling recriminations. Did I mention that Ben lives on a toxic waste dump? That Sal’s father died in Vietnam and that she’s covered with tattoos of soldiers’ names? That Sal’s mother is named Lorraine, as in “crosses of,” as in Joan of Arc? That there are regular allusions to and eruptions of fog, as in “the fog of war,” which also happens to be the title of Errol Morris’s documentary about McNamara? Really: if you’re going to use symbols as overdetermined as a white whale, you’d better be Herman Melville. But Dietz is just a playwright with a good ear and a nice sense of humor, mere accoutrements to a work that, like the ghost soldier’s uniform, has nothing inside.

Under Rick Snyder’s fluid direction, Last of the Boys shows every cast member to advantage. Amy Morton is particularly good as Lorraine, volatile, vulnerable, and funny, especially when she delivers in a tone of dry irony the regular refrain “I’m such a bad mother.” Tracy Letts and John Judd are perfectly matched as Ben and Jeeter. As they appropriate each other’s experiences–Ben says he’s met Bob Dylan, when in fact it was Jeeter who did–it becomes clear that their identities are too close for comfort.

Each soldier’s tale in Beyond Glory is powerful by virtue of its understatement. Stephen Lang’s show is based on Larry Smith’s book of recorded conversations with Medal of Honor winners in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. And the stories show that heroism is an unlooked-for by-product of doing one’s job. Every man reports loyalty to his fellows, describes anger and fear and successful maneuvers and mistakes, says something about why he did what he did. But there’s no whining about what the experience did to him, even when a soldier is missing an arm or has shattered his knee. All citizens are qualified, even obliged, to decide what a war is for. But without tales from the front, they have no way of knowing what a war is like. By these accounts, it’s painful and scary and messy and happens in a rush of adrenaline, and the best you can hope for is that you behave in a way you can live with later.

Lang directs himself in Beyond Glory, which means that, though he’s competent and did a commendable job of assembling the material, there was no one to tell him that sometimes one accent sounds just like another. It’s not clear that these accounts are any more affecting in performance than they would be to read, and Goodman patrons used to extraordinary one-man pieces like I Am My Own Wife may be a bit disappointed.

Still, this intermissionless show is deeply moving, especially in the final moment, when photos of the men Lang has portrayed appear on a screen behind him. His work has one crucial characteristic Dietz’s lacks: honesty. The wars described aren’t metaphors or touchstones, they’re actual events fought by actual people with actual consequences and benefits–or not–for others. And at a time when the truth about events and people, consequences and benefits, is so unclear, authenticity is a precious commodity.

Last of the Boys

When: Through 11/13

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted

Price: $20-$60

Info: 312-335-1650

Beyond Glory

When: Through 10/9

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

Price: $10-$35

Info: 312-443-3800

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Brosilow, Liz Lauren.