by James McClure
Directed by Todd Szekely
The New Space
17517 15th Ave NE
Shoreline, WA / (206) 650-9448

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

James McClure's "Pvt. Wars" is a brilliant little play about three psychiatric patients in a veteran's hospital during the 1970's. Voluntarily committed, we see the three men is a series of fragmentary vignettes that create both humorous snapshots of their everyday life and interaction, and occasional breakthroughs into deep, sympathetic perceptions of broken, frightened and desperately lonely individuals. Widely produced, it is an odd little stray of a drama, speaking both to the specific period of Viet Nam and to the timeless circumstance of the mentally ill in a world where there is "no place for wild and wounded animals."

The comic construction of the script is excellent, with incisive and witty lines balanced by running gags and telling, humane insights. Most importantly, the three characters are distinctive and genuine, feeling both specifically detailed and universal, neatly crafted without seeming contrived. This production is beautifully directed by Todd Szekely, and features three meticulous performances. I've seen this play in at least half a dozen productions, and this is easily the best.

Silvio is a nervous, impulsive tic of a man who fills his days with the adventure of flashing nurses from the windows of the ward, intruding into the lives of his fellow patients, and making futile plans for living with his sister. Jason Adkins has just the right blend of behavioral excess and personal inadequacy, violent anguish and psychological impotence. This is the sort of mental illness that is too often overdone on stage, becoming a clowning exhibition of ridiculous action rather than a physical expression of internal chaos. Adkins keeps the balance just right, so that when we ultimately discover the actual nature of his "injury" it is less like an explanation than a re-focusing, a clarification of everything we've seen him do.

The character of Natwick is perhaps the least well-realized in the script. A somewhat stereotypical intellectual from an upper-class background, he is self-alienated from the others and carefully protected by layers of psychological artifice and compensatory superiority. Always reading, always self-removed from his commonplace companions, his is the isolation of a man who thinks too much, knows too much, and understands too little. As he tries to explain why a man "dare not eat the peach" in T.S. Eliot's "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock" he delivers his own diagnosis in strikingly simple language. "It is always the small things in life that defeat him." Kevin Love plays the role well, with a hint of the effete that never becomes prissy, articulate without being cogent, a wallflower at the dance of his own life.

Finally, George Jonson brings to the simple country boy, Gately, an amazing strength and focus. His performance combines a broad grin and an unfettered laugh, personal faults that overwhelm his entire life, a clarity of engagement with the others while being simultaneously estranged from his own being, technical skill subservient to magic, and physical power teetering on emotional fragility. There was not a false stroke in the entire performance.

A bit of self-disclosure. I worked as a counselor in acute psychiatric mental health, primarily in State hospitals, for thirty years. In addition, during the Viet Nam War, I was briefly in a military psychiatric facility, not as a worker. When I say that these characterizations were accurate I'm not just speaking from a theatrical perspective. The resonance of this small story of small men trying to sustain a minimum body heat in an emotionally frozen time and place affected me deeply and personally. When Silvio tells us of his female visitor, in a touching story that ends with her telling him to "Come home," it was a voice that spoke to an entire generation, to all of us affected by that other, earlier mis-guided, pointless and un-winnable war.

The tiny theatre at The New Space in Shoreline is attempting to create a studio environment where physical production is secondary to the actor and the text, where performance transcends the apparatus of spectacle. Their ambitions are admirably achieved in this production, and they deserve a substantial audience. This is a funny and entertaining production, but also one with a human heart, and recognizably visceral injuries in need of understanding and healing.

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