Saturday, November 12, 2011

Writes of Passage

Writes of Passage
By Tom Wachunas

“Dear Bill, I came back to this wall again to see and touch your name. William R. Stocks. And as I do, I wonder if anyone ever stops to realize that next to your name, on this black wall, is your mother’s heart…” - from a letter written by Mrs. Eleanor Wimbish, mother of SP/5 William R. Stocks, 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry, 198th Light Infantry Brigade, American Division, who was killed in a helicopter crash in Vietnam, February 13, 1969 –

It is important to me to tell you that even as I begin this commentary, I’m struggling to avoid sentimentalizing, sermonizing, or otherwise wearing my heart on my sleeve too much (which I fear I’ve already done with this sentence). But if I break my self-imposed rule here to never let you, the reader, sense my sweat and tears over composing a critique, I don’t mind telling you that today I just don’t give a rat’s derriere about journalistic form or etiquette.

My drive home last night (Veterans Day) from the opening performance of “Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam” at the Kathleen Howland Theatre was eerily like my blackouts from darker days in another life, sans mind-altering substances. Yet I was indeed altered.

Not sure how I arrived home safely. Can’t remember traffic lights or the route. Only a flood of memories from 1968 to about 1971, some of which I’m not proud about. The infamous draft lottery of 1970. Panic. Plans to flee to Canada. Fear and loathing. The ‘Sturm und Drang’ of collegiate protests. The riots at my alma mater, Ohio State University. The May 4 mayhem and tragedy at Kent State. Heartbreaking conversations with bereaved parents and siblings of college chums who never returned from the bloodied, smoldering jungles of Asia. Words and faces that hadn’t crossed my mind with such jarring clarity for many years. Altered. Artful theatre will do that sometimes.

Phillip L. Robb directed this production that he adapted for the stage from the book of the same title. First published in 1987, the book was edited by Bernard Edelman, and was comprised of more than 200 letters written to families and loved ones by men and women who served in Vietnam. HBO produced an Emmy-winning documentary based on the book in 1988. Here, approximately 70 of the letters were read in alternating fashion, with genuine, often impassioned and startling sensitivity, by a solid six-member cast: Greg Emanuelson, Robert C. Fockler, Jim Long, Denise Robb, Rod Lang, and Jacki Dietz.

No fictions here. No ‘based-on-a-true-story’ speculations or saccharine dramatizations. No need for costumes or sound effects. The projected images on a sheet at the back of the stage, largely synchronized to echo content of the letters, are real photographs of real people fighting, flying, running, resting, hiding, hurting, dying, crying and yes, sometimes smiling. This is not so much war illustrated as war illuminated. War told by writeous warriors, as it were, who wrote with surprising eloquence of fear, loyalty, courage, love, confusion, anger, longing, and pride with searing intensity. War not as a vague memory, but made newly present through the dying art of letter-writing. And here, war read out loud by real people with heartbreaking reverence for the living and the dead.

There are too many truly moving passages in this performance – shared equally among the cast - to enumerate here. But two of them refuse to stop rattling in my memory. In one, late in the second ‘act’, Rod Lang, with steely, chilling determination in his voice, reads a letter from soldier Gregory Lusco, published in 1970 by a newspaper in Massachusetts. It’s an articulate but supremely blistering rant against the immoral, insensitive divisiveness and misplaced political sensibilities in this country at the time of the Kent State shootings - a soldier crying out for compassionate attention and respect for those who sacrificed their lives in Vietnam. An equally unforgettable moment (quoted at the beginning of this review) is the epilogue, wherein Denise Robb, with glassy-eyed pathos, effectively becomes the mournful mother who leaves letters to her son at the memorial where his name is etched.

Another memory during my drive home was of a popular poster during the volatile, heady Hippie days of my youth that read, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” Now, while I’m sincerely grateful to have witnessed last night’s powerful and relevant remembrance, more than ever I’m thinking a better idea would be for us to forget how to do war altogether. To disappear it from our lives. To alter our minds forever. Call it a benevolent blackout.

“Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam” performances November 12, 18, and 19 at 8 p.m at the Kathleen Howland Theatre, located in Second April Galerie, 324 Cleveland Avenue North, downtown Canton. Tickets $10.00 for adults, $5 for students, senior citizens, and anyone with a public library card. ALL VETERANS ADMITTED FREE. To order call (330) 451 – 0924, or

Photo: the Cast – seated, left-to-right: Robert C. Fockler, Jacki Dietz, Jim Long / standing, l-r, Greg Emanuelson, Denise Robb, Rod Lang

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