Review by Fred Rudofsky
During a terse monologue titled “Dedication of the Vietnam Memorial (Nov. 11, 1982),” an anonymous figure turns to the audience and declares, “No war ends.” That motif informed a remarkable debut of “War Stories,” directed by Cindy Bates.
Presented in a series of first-person accounts, vignettes, essays, poems and short stories written by Empire State College students and performed by college students and professional actors, “War Stories” chronicles the effects of a century of wars upon those who served, as well as those who find themselves impacted by separation and loss on the home front.
On a stage featuring a few chairs or the occasional stool, “Opening” introduced the audience to the ensemble and set the tone of the night. “You want me to tell you a war story?” asked one. Another mused on the selective nature of memory, only to be followed by one who questioned the “morbid curiosity” of those who never have served.
Christine Carner’s “Thank You” followed; deftly performed by Nadine Wedderburn – the piece lived up to its title of showing gratitude for veterans of all wars.
Those expecting Ryan Smithson, author of the acclaimed memoir “Ghosts of War: The True Story of a 19-Year-Old G.I.,” to draw upon his personal experiences in the Iraq war got a pleasant surprise when he stepped out into the spotlight for Mindy Kronenberg’s “Bernie’s Story, 1943” to recount the ordeal of a young man fighting the jungles of the Pacific theater, recognizing his mortality with humor and the imminent demise of his foe with ambivalence.
“Sole Surviving Son,” written by Daniel Reinhold and performed by Issac Newberry, detailed witnessing the horrors of drug casualties of veterans in the Vietnam era. “Dreams,” an extended piece by Andrew Ferg, featured three characters (played by Patrick Rooney, Sarah Wasserbach and Deb Smith) reporting the life and times of Tony, a roadside bombing casualty.
Jack Fallon, the senior member of the acting troupe, brought gravitas to Alan Davis’ “World War II Prisoner of War,” a story of a British airman who endures survivor’s guilt. Fallon later joined Patrick Rooney for a staged reading of Anthony Flammia and Gennaro Bonfiglio’s “September 11, 2001,” which looked at the valor of the police and firefighters in the days and nights at Ground Zero. The juxtaposition of that piece with Fran Hardy’s “World War I,” performed by Wedderburn, made eerie sense given the toxic airborne effects detailed graphically in both settings.
“Denny,” written Carla Hall D’Ambra and performed by Wasserbach, brought a sense of anger simmering decades later in a woman who recalls how she saw the Vietnam War play out on her black and white television screen as a child, only to be haunted by the loss of her cousin. “Why is there war?” she still asks indignantly with no answer in sight.
Perhaps the most riveting performance of the night was by Smithson in “Purple Heart Boulevard,” a monologue written by an anonymous author who had served in the past decade. “I feel the world stop spinning,” confesses a tearful young gunner, who recalls engaging the enemy during a convoy mission through Baghdad and now deals with PTSD in the aftermath.
“Veterans Day” referenced the gruesome statistics and problematic territorial changers of the supposed “war to end all wars,” making the discerning members of the audience wonder what will be the historical account written about Iraq and Afghanistan. Featuring the full ensemble, Sean Markham’s “Closing” brought the seventy-five minute production full circle, entreating the audience to consider the brutality of war in all its forms: lived, remembered and spoken.