There are bound to be some spoilers in here. As I think about this piece, I feel myself analyzing certain scenes and decisions made to help make meaning for myself, and so those are going to be part of the article. Proceed at your own risk. If you hate spoilers, you have two more nights to see the show – it runs through Saturday night this week- and then you can come back here and see how your thoughts compare to mine. Whatever you decide, you’ve been warned!
The Last of the Boys isn’t what you might imagine for a play about Vietnam. In some ways, the war is just a part of the setting, like the oddly proportioned trailer home planted squarely in the middle of the Firehall Theatre stage. The war is long over by the time the lights come up on grizzled vets Ben (Rob Howard) and Jeeter (Jerry Werhy) and all that remains are the echoes – the memories of what was seen and heard and experienced, the emotions tied up in the relationships forged during battle and with those still at home. The Last of the Boys is more of a ghost story than a chronicle of war: the two vets struggle with their past and what it’s done to their relationships (Ben has just refused to go home for his father’s funeral, their relationship strained because of the war), a young woman (Emily Elisabeth Caballero) longs to know more of the father who died as she was born even as her mother (Sandy Grissom) struggles to forget, and a young soldier (Cole G. Nelson) haunts Ben’s memories. The most historical piece of the show is the shadow that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara casts over the action as a whole and especially Ben’s psyche.
What I was most interested by in this play is the way that straight realism quickly gave way to a magical realism that allowed the ghosts of the past to be a part of the present – not in a metaphorical way, but in an actual, physical sort of way. Early on, Jeeter comments on the fact that Ben is ironing a formal white button up shirt; later, Ben emerges from his trailer to put on the shirt and a sport coat and “becomes” Robert McNamara and speaks to a young soldier about the war and decisions he has made. This could be a dream, a strange piece of Ben’s fantasy life acted out for the audience, but it doesn’t take long before this fantasy bleeds into reality. Salyer, a young woman who has attached herself to Jeeter, is fascinated by the Vietnam War; her father was killed in the war and she met a tattoo artist who took her to see the Vietnam Memorial. After seeing her father’s name on the wall, she decides to have as much of the memorial as possible tattooed on her body. At one point, she enters the scene as Ben is channeling McNamara and she greets the soldier. He is as real to her as he is to Ben, or she has become part of the fantasy. Later, she is able to talk to the soldier, touch him, and he reveals that he is her father, even though the soldier’s presence in Ben’s world predates Salyer’s arrival and the soldier knows things about Salyer’s father that Ben couldn’t logically know. He is a part of Ben’s experience, but he is also more; as the show progresses, his presence gains weight and dimension, much more than just a fantasy or a guilty conscience acted out in Ben’s fantasy life. Late in the play, Salyer tries to draw her mother Lorraine’s attention to the soldier’s presence. When she finally turns, she stares at the spot where the soldier is standing for a moment and then says, “There’s no one there.” This is one of the greatest moments in the show, because the audience really can’t tell if she doesn’t see him, if maybe this ghost is just some shared manifestation for Ben and Salyer (Jeeter, who spends most of the show talking about New Age concepts and other as Ben says, “woo woo stuff,” never sees the young soldier himself), or if she is still so invested in her grief and rage at losing the man she loves, that she refuses to see him and receive whatever sort of closure and peace his presence might offer her. This moment of ambiguity was my favorite in the show, and really highlighted for me the complex ways that we all deal with loss and grief.
Ben’s transformation into Robert McNamara is also ambiguous: it’s not clear how much is related to the war and his memories of the conflict, and how much is about his troubled relationship with his father. Ben’s father worked for Ford Motors and idolized McNamara, and Ben’s decision to enlist was affected by McNamara’s involvement. Ben seems to have hoped that enlisting in the army would help him be closer to his father; instead it had the opposite effect and Jeeter, an academic who was working with Ben’s father on a book before his death, reveals that Ben’s father had completely lost faith in McNamara and his “plan” for the war. Becoming McNamara allows Ben to work through his estrangement from his father, and also occasion’s an apology to Salyer for her father’s death. As the fantasy progresses, and reality and fantasy blend together, Ben’s manifestation of McNamara becomes much more humbled and unsure just as the soldier becomes more aggressive: near the end of the play, McNamara is talking about the war as the soldier repeatedly shoves his head into a basin of water. Again, with the play’s use of ambiguity, it’s not clear who is being punished here, Ben or McNamara, and Ben and Jeeter go back to their familiar and comfortably strange friendship as Salyer, Lorraine, and the young soldier make their exits. There are a lot of unanswered questions as the house lights come up, but the audience is left with the feeling of having been in the middle of a real live ghost story: not the sort of night vision footage of reality tv or the shadowed corridors of a Victorian novel, but a real ghost story where the past has weight and bearing, where sins have to be answered for, even if by proxy, and where grief and longing are as real as the people we meet on the side of the road on the way to a Stones concert.
The cast all handled their roles wonderfully and Kathy Coudle-King, the director, has put together a coherent and enjoyable evening’s entertainment. There isn’t a lot for the history buff in this show, but it is a moving and thoughtful piece of theatre that deserves to be shared.
Tags: Cole G. Nelson, Emily Elisabeth Caballero, Fire Hall Theater, Fire Hall Theatre, Firehall Theater, Firehall Theatre, Greater Grand Forks Community Theater, Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Jerry Wehry, Kathleen Coudle-King, Kathleen King, Kathy Coudle-King, Kathy King, Last of the Boys, Miss Jaye, Rob Howard, Sandy Grissom, World of Champagne