The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Mar 22, 2011

Magenta Giraffe wrestles with the legacy of war

Posted by matthew.piper

"There is nothing about the Vietnam War that hasn't been said," director Frannie Shepherd-Bates declares in the program notes to Last of the Boys, the current Magenta Giraffe Theater production playing downtown at 1515 Broadway.  "But that doesn't mean that it's over.  Or that we're done with it."

Last of the Boys, by noted American playwright Steven Dietz, is a frank 2004 chamber drama about the lasting psychic wounds inflicted by the Vietnam War on at least four characters (maybe six, if you count the ghost and Robert McNamara).  As told by Magenta Giraffe's players, it's an engaging look at a difficult subject that lingers, just like the spectral soldier who regularly shows up to haunt Ben (Dave Davies), a taciturn, middle-aged vet living in an otherwise abandoned, radioactive trailer park in the Central Valley of California.

The play takes place, portentously, in summer 2001.  The sparse set depicts Ben's squalid backyard, strewn with empty beer cans and stacked with sandbags (a potent visual metaphor for his protective isolation).  Ben is visited by his geeky, twitchy unit buddy Jeeter (Alan Madlane) and Jeeter's new girlfriend, Sal (Lisa Melinn), a mysterious young woman cloaked from the neck down in black.  Sal's fiery mother Lorraine (Linda Rabin Hammell), who lost a boyfriend to the war, is hot on Sal's tracks, determined to put an end to her daughter's impulsive relationship.  The ghost (Matt Lockwood) is a young soldier who seems increasingly tormented, and whose weird presence is amplified by low, throbbing guitar music.

The Magenta Giraffe Company, dedicated to using theatre as a catalyst for social change, does a nice job with this rich material.  Neil Koivu's lighting is inspired, and the sound design (by Shepherd-Bates) eerily incorporates a regular, insistent hiss, evoking the release of some terrible gas.  As the action leads to surprising revelations and a startlingly visceral act of violence, the performances crescendo; Davies as Ben and Lockwood as the young soldier are especially wrenching.

Image of 1515 Broadway interior

1515 Broadway's intimate black box theater (you have to cross over the stage to get to the bathroom) is an ideal space for this kind of play, which insists that we have candid, public conversations about the long-term human damage left in the wake of our wars.

The Last of the Boys plays until April 2 at 1515 Broadway: 1515 Broadway, Detroit; (313) 965-1515. Tickets are between $15 and $18, with pay-what-you-can tickets available for every performance.

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