Monday, June 22, 2009

Review of Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

Dear Benjamin Lloyd, cast, and crew of White Pines Productions

Re: Your recent production of Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier

I’m writing this review as a letter for two reasons. Due to your short production run, none of my readers can see the play. Also, as letters factor heavily in William di Canzio’s script, I wanted to pay a similar tribute to your very moving production. I hope you understand.

Di Canzio’s story probably presented some difficulties. I’m sure that even today’s worldly teenagers would find it difficult to accept not only a tale of love at first letter, but a narrative in which a reluctant and self-protecting 19 year old girl (Amanda Schoonover as Sarah) would yield her heart to the forthright, aggressive affections of Noah Drew’s 22 year old army-reservist Dan. And certainly, few outside the military would understand the impulsive need to cast an anchor in one’s own country on the eve of deployment, even if that means popping the question on a first date.

However, despite these difficulties, your direction turned the first half of Johnny into one of the most sincere, touching, and real hours of theatre I have experienced in a very long time. And as two young people struggling to better their lives with the community college education they must work forty hours a week to afford, Schoonover and Drew manage to make young love as charming as when it’s first experienced.

Schoonover turned her character’s lack of humor into an adorable attribute, making it very easy to understand not only Dan’s instinct for what’s real, but also his willingness to reach out to protect her. And though both were touched early by the tragedy of a parent’s death (and a concomitant reluctance to trust), each tinged their blossoming desires with the humor that break down those walls. Drew’s face and soothing voice painted a portrait of pure earnestness that put a smile on my face throughout act one, with his inspiring attitude in the face of deployment to Iraq keeping it there.

And while I expected a play about war to convey a measure of bombast and outrage, too often I’ve seen the political become preachy, tainting a sincere examination of war’s consequences with the shrill of oft-insincere indignation. So I appreciated the uncertain swagger of Mark Lazar’s Major Smythe when he asks Dan “what kind of life could you have with her if the homeland is not secure?” And di Canzio’s script (if not Marcia Saunder’s performance as Dan’s mother) subtly, though aptly compared the “national mistakes” of Vietnam and Iraq, while also illustrating the humble patriotism of sacrifice in a mother who ships candy and comic books to everyone in her son’s unit, and the fortitude of a wife who forestalls her dreams by dropping out of college to purchase the body armor that Halliburton price-overruns render unaffordable.

Though I can only attest to what I’ve watched on the news or read in the papers, Christopher Colucci’s sound design of choppers, gunshots, and bombings evoked the proximity of danger in a war played like a video game where cheering adolescents man the joysticks, and J. Paul Nicholas’ likable sarcasm (as the prisoner Amahl) showed the collateral damage that affects spirits as well as flesh. His comparison of the Iliad (a Western nation invading a mid-East city) conveyed an understanding of myth’s role in warfare; the wisdom in his performance impressed with the Odyssey’s notion that only on the voyage home does a soldier journey back into life as a hero.

And di Canzio’s script and your cast forced me to contemplate my least favorite example of fate, the notion that “no good deed goes unpunished.” Perhaps that’s the most horrible facet of war, that in the midst of barbarity, even an act of thoughtful compassion must engender suffering. And despite the valiant protestations of heroism, that suffering, as you showed so clearly, ripples outward in waves to wreak havoc on circles of loved ones, families, and communities—not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in the towns that more than four thousand now deceased soldiers used to call home. Matt Saunders’ simple set—of paper panels hung together like a battalion of tombstones—only underscored the continuing, national-soul eroding tragedy of this war.

As a too rational atheist, I’d like to believe, what Sarah comes to understand: that loved ones can continue to take care of you after they die. Di Canzio’s referencing of the Orpheus myth coupled with Teri Rambo’s haunting vocals and Colucci’s guitar, and the straightforward sincerity of your production convinced me, if only for a moment, of the possibility.

I won’t end with “sincerely” or “truly,” because those words are rarely either sincere or true, but close by saying “Thank You” to everyone who made this beautiful production possible.

White Pines Productions presented William di Canzio’s Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier at the Adrienne Theatre. Benjamin Lloyd directed, ran from June 3 to 7, 2009.

No comments: