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Names of the Dead

nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
August 13, 2012

A soldier back from Iraq wanders in anguish in his messy home, whimpering. He picks up a gun and stops dead the rock playing radio with his crashing fist.

This is a glimpse of the reality that perhaps no drama can match in its severity and sorrow. In the program of Names of the Dead we are told: “The VA estimates that a veteran takes his or her own life every 80 minutes – That is 6,500 suicides per year, 20% of all suicides in the United States. Since its launch in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has answered more than 500,000 calls and made more than 18,000 life-saving rescues.”

Vanessa Lenz Neithardt's debut play is devoted to this honorable endeavor; to capture the trauma and inner turmoil soldiers – and their family – go through everyday, incessantly and seemingly without a hope of an end. She also seeks to highlight the VA's efforts to help the veterans. It's a heartfelt, honest, and engaging piece, with fully committed performances all around. You can practically touch their conviction.

Jared is reaching the end of his rope. He calls the hotline with a gun in his hand and a list of names in his drawer. Hope, a hotline volunteer, is about to call it a day when the phone rings. She stays on to try to reach Jared with her soothing voice and gentle tone to convey her empathy and understanding, or, if that fails, with stern reminders of how terribly his surviving family will suffer - anything that may stop Jared from taking his own life. But Jared may or may not be ready to accept any of that. He may only want an ear and not a helping hand. An extensive dialogue plays out between these two equally determined people, and along the way we are introduced to Jared's loving wife, Kelly, his mother who turns to religion to deal, and his best friend Dave who questions his suicidal intention. What will Jared do in the end – if indeed there is an end?

Michael Neithardt plays Jared with naked emotions, portraying a very sympathetic self-proclaimed killing machine. What may be lacking in subtlety is made up for in a genuine presence. Emily Stokes is the most natural with her Kelly, injecting a lot of texture into the potentially cliched wife role. Kendall Cornell plays Hope gently, a steady anchor for the story. Writer Neithardt and director Robert Greene take a direct and straightforward approach, perhaps to let the intensity and magnitude of the issues stand on their own. However, for their audience – who picks and comes to the show already aware of the problems the veterans and indeed the nation face, and is no doubt solidly on the side of the creators – more originality, new insights, and dramatization will really help elevate the narrative above its advocacy. We know a great deal. We want to feel more.

But there is nothing like seeing a show full of such true passion and compassion. I wish there were more works like Names of the Dead - burning as a flame of conscience for our modern theater.