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By Martin F. Kohn
It's only a passing reference, but the Civil War gets a mention in Last of the Boys, a play about the Vietnam War, and the implications are plain: Just because the fighting has ended doesn't mean the war is over.
Last of the Boys takes place in 1999, but Vietnam veterans Ben and Jeeter aren't done with it, nor is the war quite finished with them. Or with any of us, playwright Steven Dietz suggests.
I'm with him on that. Last year, crossing into the U.S at Port Huron, my American-born cousin who has lived in Toronto for decades, was grilled belligerently about whether he'd moved to Canada to dodge the draft. (He hadn't.)
It takes a while to figure out the relationship between Ben (Dave Davies) and Jeeter (Alan Madlane), perhaps as a metaphor for how hard it is to understand a complicated situation like a war. Or perhaps the playwright could have done better. Those same possibilities apply to Frannie Shepherd-Bates who directed this Magenta Giraffe Theatre production.
The play opens with Jeeter chastising Ben for having missed his own father's funeral. Could Jeeter, who looks significantly older and more road-weary than Ben, be Ben's uncle or a close friend of Ben's father? No, the two men are supposed to be contemporaries.
And clean-cut Ben is in as much distress as scruffy Jeeter, if not more, which is where both the play and the production take off.
Ben sees ghosts: Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara (also played by Davies) and a young soldier in fatigues (Matt Lockwood) who functions as something of conscience. On his way to visit Ben, Jeeter has picked up a strange young woman named Sal (Lisa Melinn) who keeps her arms, legs and hands covered at all times. Later, the woman's mother, Lorraine (Linda Rabin Hammell), shows up looking for her. Both women have a connection to the Vietnam War.
We do learn what Sal is hiding. In fact, everyone has something to hide, except the ghostly young soldier.
Thematically, Last of the Boys covers a lot of territory: fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, guilt, responsibility, the pull of the past, reconciliation...
Dietz can be heavy-handed with the symbolism, too: Ben lives on top of a known toxic waste site (you can't see the toxins, but you know they're at work down there); the term "fog of war" is never mentioned, but there's an awful lot of foggy weather; Lorraine has garish orange hair, recalling the deadly defoliant Agent Orange; Ben, forever stuck in his own past, follows from venue to venue a band that has been popular since the '60s. He has a message for them.
With so much going on, Shepherd-Bates and her actors still keep their focus on the characters as human beings. A couple of opening-night problems are sure to be fixed – a faulty light, background music that's nicely chaotic but too loud – but there's much to chew on in Last of the Boys, and Magenta Giraffe deserves some sort of civilian decoration for presenting its Michigan premiere.
SHOW DETAILS: Last of the Boys
Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company at 1515 Broadway, 1515 Broadway, Detroit. Thursday-Saturday through April 2. Tickets: $15-$18, or pay-what-you-can. For information: 313-408-7269 or www.magentagiraffe.org.
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