You Know When the Men Are Gone
There are many things to love about living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Among them, of course, are the region’s many rich cultural offerings. And one of the true highlights of those is Word for Word, a local theater company that transforms short stories by well known writers into theater, but without tampering with a single word of the original work.
In the process, Word for Word almost creates a new genre, one that combines the literary genius of writers like James Baldwin, Tobias Wolff, Tennessee Williams, or Elizabeth Strout with imaginative staging, accomplished performances, and a knack for bringing new depth and meaning to their prose.
As a result, what was memorable on the page becomes even more memorable on stage. And what is something usually experienced in isolation by a single reader takes on the power of group catharsis that only live theater can provide.
Word for Word’s new production at Z Space in San Francisco is no exception. In fact, in choosing two stories from Siobhan Fallon’s "You Know When the Men Are Gone," the company brings to life profound tales of experiences too often left in the shadows: those of the families of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war-scarred loved ones who return (or do not).
Fallon’s collection, published to great acclaim in 2011, is a set of loosely interconnected stories set at Fort Hood in Texas. Word for Word has selected two of those stories to bring to the stage.
"The Last Stand" (directed Joel Mullennix) tells of 21-year-old Kit (Chad Deverman), a soldier who has survived an IED in Iraq and returns home with a severely injured foot. During his tour, the one thing that kept Kit going was the list he created of all the ways in which his wife Helena (Roselyn Hallett) filled his life with the comforts absent from his life in Iraq.
It turns out, however, that his memories of their home life are far rosier than Helena’s. Since his injury, she’s become more distant, choosing to leave messages rather talk to him during his long recovery in the military hospital.
And when the two are finally reunited upon his return to Fort Hood, it’s a far less joyful meeting than Kit had hoped for. The fact that he’s damaged goods with no real future outside the army merely helps to push the couple farther apart.
In "Gold Star" (directed by Amy Kossow), Kit reappears when he goes to see Josie (Arwen Anderson) the widow of his commanding officer, the man whose dead body shielded him in their burning humvee and saved his life. After visits from legions of casserole-toting military wives and young soldiers who sit suicide-watch on her couch while viewing Fox News, Helena finds brief but bitterly sad solace in Kit’s visit. But it is not words that connect them, and Kit cannot offer the answers that Helena wishes he could provide.
Fallon’s economy of language is quite dazzling and the way she’s able to evoke unspoken layers of emotion through a gesture or a single, swift observation is simply stunning. On the stage, tight and imaginative direction serve to amplify that impact while also injecting surprising humor through a player’s unexpected expression or the wry delivery of a line.
With a simple set in which military storage boxes become beds, then a bar, then a mechanical bull, and in which flashbacks to the war itself take place behind fluttering swathes of fabric that reach almost to the floor, Word for Word invites the audience to engage as deeply in their performance as a reader might engage with a story on the page.
The company also utilizes the devices of theater to amplify the meaning of these infallibly resonant stories. In "The Last Stand," the small cast manages to perfectly personify the ambivalence of a flag-waving crowd greeting its returning wounded, and in "Gold Star," the dead man looks down on Josie’s living room throughout the action, a figure who will forever overshadow her life and the life of the man he saved.
Without exception, the players (all of whom shift easily into multiple ensemble roles as well as playing Fallon’s named characters) deliver pitch-perfect performances. As Kit, Chad Deverman anchors "The Last Stand" with a beautifully nuanced performance while as his young wife Roselyn Hallett manages to bring to life her character’s combined vulnerability and hard-edged determination.
Ryan Tasker is utterly convincing as the somewhat straight-laced Crawford, Kit’s friend and drinking buddy. He also gives us a finely drawn Eddie, the dead soldier standing haunting vigil over his widow. And, playing that widow, Arwen Anderson embodies the shrunken desperation of fury combined with overwhelming grief.
We live in an era in which war has demanded little sacrifice from the overwhelming majority of people in the United States. Whatever opinion you may have about Bush’s invasion of Iraq or Obama’s current campaign in Afghanistan, for years we engaged in these forays without paying a cent for it in higher taxation (though the bills are finally coming due now). There’s been no draft -- we’ve solved the recruitment problem by sending those already signed up on the multiple deployments that have so ravaged their physical and mental health.
And in the most recent presidential campaign (except for the usual platitudes about supporting the troops) the war in Afghanistan was barely mentioned. For the untold thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of civilians killed in these wars, there is no acknowledgement at all.
This has allowed us to confine to a corner of our national psyche the real horror of modern-day combat and the price it demands not only of the soldiers who return, but also of their families-the spouses, parents, and children whose lives are also forever changed.
In performing Siobhan Fallon’s achingly authentic stories with such unflinching power, Word for Word offers a window into a world that most of us choose not to see.
It is a difficult and uncomfortable world to look at. But in this accomplished staging, it is a world that takes us to the core of what it means to be human in the face of unfathomable adversity. The result is something of power, beauty and absolute relevance that is not to be missed.
"You Know When the Men Are Gone" runs through Feb. 24 at Z Space, 450 Florida in San Francisco. For info or tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit the theater’s website