The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel

Thunder Road Ensemble,

at American Blues Theatre

There came a day when I stood in line in the drill hall to be issued olive-drab pants and jacket, brown shirt, brown tie, brown shoes, a belt with a brass buckle and an overseas cap….I put the uniform on and looked in the mirror. I liked what I saw….The uniform gave me a sense of belonging and something I had never experienced all the while I was growing up; I felt distinctive….The discipline, the structure, the camaraderie, the sense of belonging were what I craved. –Colin Powell, My American Journey

In the 1992 afterword to the two-volume edition of his “Vietnam Plays,” David Rabe writes: “Since the end of the [Vietnam] war the level of violence accepted as routine in this society has risen steadily, and there are times when I think that the war was the turning point, the launch pad that fired us into this lethal drift….The poison was not so much that we did what we did as the way we denied that we were doing what we could see ourselves doing on television.” If denial “cut the last moral tether” that kept our violence in check, as Rabe goes on to suggest, so did a more concrete reality, I think: loss. America was defeated in Vietnam for various reasons, including domestic division over the effort’s justifiability and our military’s unreadiness for jungle guerrilla warfare, and that defeat left a festering wound that runs deeper than its obvious manifestations in recent controversies–over Robert McNamara’s confession that “we were wrong” to fight, or whether we should have reestablished diplomatic and trade relations with Vietnam’s communist government. Vietnam is a fundamental element in the cultural and political war that rages today, with right- and left-wing extremists vying for possession of a shifting center. The intense dislike of President Clinton in some circles goes beyond disagreements over policy or ideology to his image as a draft-dodging war protester. And much of the admiration being afforded retired general Colin Powell’s shadow candidacy for the presidency is based on his service in ‘Nam–never mind that he was the operations officer who drafted the first official denial of the My Lai massacre.

America’s loss in Vietnam was a humiliation, even an emasculation–a blow below the belt to our national manhood. Over the years we’ve tried to heal the unkindest cut: in sure-win quickie wars like Grenada and Desert Storm, in macho fantasy films like the Rambo series, and in the gangs, militias, and other cults of male camaraderie that have proliferated since the draft ended. We got our balls blown off in southeast Asia, and we’ve been trying to put ’em back on ever since.

The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel is a play about a soldier who gets his balls blown off literally, by a grenade that, it turns out, was thrown by a fellow soldier in a fight over a Vietnamese whore. Fragged by one of his own, Pavlo takes four days to die; he might have lived had he not played the hero by picking up the grenade. Rabe’s early, reputation-making drama starts with the explosion that ends its title character’s young life, then recounts in episodic flashback the “basic training” that conditioned the Pavlovian Pavlo for the boom boom room called war. Seeking a surrogate male-dominated family to take the place of his dysfunctional mother-run real one, Pavlo is a middle-class virgin from midtown Manhattan who tries to pass himself off as a street-smart tough guy; he even lies to his mother about what time his train leaves for boot camp so she won’t hug him good-bye in front of the other guys. He desperately wants to prove himself a man among men, but his clumsy overreaching makes him a scapegoat for barracks bullies, a patsy for pimps, and an object of contempt for the folks at home, including a longish-haired brother who mocks his uniform and a girl who rebuffs his advances by calling him a “robot.” Yet bit by bit his “training” takes effect–until this foolish, feckless kid is transformed into a gung-ho grunt, the ruthless and doomed killing machine that Vietnam demands.

Written in 1967-’68, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel was the first-produced of four plays Rabe, a Vietnam vet himself, wrote about the war; even at the time it premiered, in 1971, it offered a startling contrast to most other stage and film depictions of war in general and Vietnam in particular. Decidedly antiheroic, it deflates the notion of soldiers as a noble brotherhood; Pavlo’s self-defeating attempts to fit in with this cruel, cynical cabal comprise the play’s saddest and most absurd scenes. Its depiction of American atrocities and failures undercuts any notion of the Vietnam war as morally defensible, much less strategically winnable; but Rabe eschews political statements about Johnson or Nixon or hawks or doves, focusing instead on one soldier’s inept attempt to fit in. Ironically, considering it was written when African-Americans were called “Negroes,” Pavlo’s only two friends are black. One is Sergeant Tower, the lard-ass loudmouth assigned to whip new recruits into shape; hardly a bosom pal, Tower nonetheless epitomizes the tough love of a man whose life is devoted to teaching other men how to stay alive. The other is Ardell, a guardian angel/Greek chorus figure who shepherds Pavlo through his three-hour flashback, finally presiding over one last manly ritual: the boy’s burial.

Reshaped with the help of its original producer and director–Joe Papp and Jeff Bleckner respectively–Rabe’s play is a deeply personal work that would be improved by firmer editing. Overlong and indulgent, it may seem ungainly to audiences familiar with the sharper works that followed it. But despite its shortcomings, Pavlo Hummel has the power of emotional authenticity–and many affecting sequences in this well-acted revival from Thunder Road Ensemble.

Like the play itself, director Daniel Taube’s large cast fares best in scenes of male interaction. The urge for masculine belonging that pulls men together in tribal alternatives to their biological families is an even more constant preoccupation in Rabe’s work than war, informing other plays such as Hurlyburly and Goose and TomTom and even a screenplay-for-hire like the Tom Cruise thriller The Firm. Rabe’s strength as a writer is his ability to critique such tribes even as he movingly expresses the intense longing behind them. Many of the most effective scenes–ritual chants, a horrific bayonet exercise–are played by the whole male ensemble. And a scene in which the company’s pounding, rhythmic rifle drill is juxtaposed with Pavlo’s first sexual encounter offers a grotesque variation on the punitive push-ups we’ve seen Pavlo execute.

While Matt Scharff doesn’t limn Pavlo’s evolution from pathetic pup to ferocious fighter as strongly as he could, he’s quite touching in depicting Pavlo’s efforts to be all that he can be–stoically enduring a “blanket party” (the other guys cover him with a bedspread and beat him up), fighting tears as he endures his sergeant’s withering abuse, or drunkenly trying to arrange a welcome-home tryst with the girl he left behind. Phillip VanLear’s beautiful, complex portrayal of Ardell is an enigmatic mix of cynical jive, weary compassion, and chilly aloofness. Effective character studies are turned in by Kelvin F. Blunt as Sergeant Tower, Kirk Anderson as a bedridden casualty trying to hide his despair behind macho bravado, Chuck Stubbings as a squad leader trying to assert discipline over men as undisciplined as himself, and baldheaded Thomas Daniel as a semipsychotic barracks bully.

To be sure, Rabe’s depiction of the brutal, absurd Vietnam experience, eye-opening in ’71, is old news after movies like Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Casualties of War (the last of which Rabe scripted) as well as plays like Tracers and Rabe’s own superior Streamers. But The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel is in one respect more illuminating now than it was during the war. Aware of America’s final defeat, we recognize that Pavlo is America incarnate: boastful, deluded, disastrously ill suited to the circumstance he’s thrust himself into, fatally trapped between the corruption of his own team and the determination of his Asian enemies. And Pavlo’s insistent effort to make himself a man stands as a chillingly apt metaphor for a nation spiraling into self-destructive violence as it tries to reclaim its national manhood by celebrating the new hero of the moment, be he Sylvester Stallone or Colin Powell.

Before The Normal Heart and As Is, long before Angels in America and Jeffrey, there was One. A monologue by a gay man with AIDS, the play was premiered in 1982 by Chicago’s Lionheart Gay Theater at a Halsted Street gay bar called Company–and was heralded in Variety, USA Today, and other publications as the first “AIDS play.”

Jeff Hagedorn and Carl Forsberg, One’s author and original star respectively, both died of AIDS this summer. Forsberg, who passed away on July 19, was well regarded in off-Loop theater and opera circles as a designer and conductor as well as an actor; Hagedorn, a prolific playwright during his time here, died September 8. They made a lasting mark, and will be missed.