Famous Door Theatre Company

A mass gravestone set deep into the earth, with the names of the 58,183 casualties of America’s longest war carved into its polished black panels, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial engendered a good deal of controversy at its inception. The architect, Maya Ying Lin, is an Asian woman who was three years old when the first American troops were sent to Vietnam. Her design was widely considered too unconventional–ambiguous at best and downright unheroic at worst. Vietnam veterans referred to the new monument as “the black hole” or “the gash.”

A decade later the controversy over the Wall has nearly disappeared: three million people a year visit the Wall, and it’s most often described as powerful, a place where healing starts. Families and veterans can grieve there, finding the names of lost comrades and loved ones.

Since the Wall’s opening in 1982 25,000 personal mementos and messages have been left there for those who died, and more are brought daily. A number of such letters, journal entries, notes, and poems are presented in Famous Door’s wounding, emotionally wrenching production Shrapnel in the Heart, a two-act piece adapted by director David Connelly from a book of the same name compiled by journalist Laura Palmer.

An ensemble of 13 portray the parents, lovers, comrades, sisters, and wives who have made the trip to the Wall–to say farewell, to leave an annual love letter, to make good on the promise of sharing a beer in the States, to apologize for surviving. This is tricky material, honest but written by (forgive me) amateurs operating under great emotional distress, and betrayed into cliche over the past 20 years by a number of crummy movies. It’s hard to approach any production about Vietnam with anything but trepidation–after all, anyone young enough to play a soldier of that time can’t have the foggiest idea what it was like.

All the more reason to congratulate Connelly (making his Chicago directing debut) and his cast for delivering a sincere tribute to Vietnam’s emotionally wounded. The production is passionate but mercifully free of self- indulgent hysteria: Connelly trusts the material enough to present it straightforwardly, finding moments of great dignity in the midst of inarticulate grief.

“America has no better than you,” a mother claims with strained serenity. “And you were ours. Good-bye, Gary.” One vet finds his comrade’s name on the Wall and proclaims, “They say you died in vain. You did nothing in vain!” When excerpts from a psychologically wrecked soldier’s journal were presented (in a stunning performance by Michael Shannon), sighs of recognition rose from the veterans in the audience. “I’ve been a POW–in my own mind. For 12 years,” Shannon says. “For me, the war isn’t over yet.”

Robert G. Smith’s set is clean and spare, sweeping black stairs reaching up into a cyclorama–and down into it, though the audience can’t see these steps. Many of the actors appear gradually, like soldiers scaling a hill or climbing up from a hidden grave. The production’s made up entirely of monologues, and every actor has one or two. In the first act these are short, and so simple as to be almost trite; but the performers play them life-size, discovering an honesty both stern and melting that reminds you this is no contrivance. These sentiments were not written to manipulate an audience but out of real despair and struggle.

The second-act monologues are longer and more complicated. A sister watches her beloved brother’s slow decay under Agent Orange. An old classmate awkwardly admits that “losing two boyfriends and several friends was too much for me, and I sort of screwed up–for about ten years.” A cheerful veteran brings news of the world to the dead comrades of his old company, “the sporting crew.”

Connelly composed music to accompany several of the poems; two guitarists are part of the ensemble, and they join the entire cast in song from time to time, ending on an optimistic note. Judging by the audible responses of those who lived through Vietnam, Shrapnel in the Heart is a deeply personal, moving experience for vets. For those of us Vietnam never touched, it is as eye-opening as though the Wall itself, with its 58,183 names, had been moved to Chicago for our convenience.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brad Miller.