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Johnny Got His Gun
nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
Johnny Got His Gun is a one-man play based on Dalton Trumbo’s fiercely
anti-war novel of the same title. It’s also one of the most moving,
life-affirming, and masterfully executed shows I’ve ever seen.It’s World War I. In the United States, the war is idealized. Flags wave and
the rousing anthem of “Johnny Get Your Gun” is sung as young men go off to
spread Liberty and stop the Huns. Joe Bonham is one of these boys.As the play begins, Joe is floating in and out of lucidness. A telephone is
ringing loudly in a distant room. Joe hears it, and then slips into memories of
his family and home. He snaps back to the present, the telephone’s still ringing
and Joe realizes he’s been hurt and has gone deaf. And then we’re in yesterday
again, reliving moments spent with his girl, Kareen. Joe continues switching
back and forth between the past and present. When Joe is conscious, he makes
some discoveries: they’ve cut off his left arm. And his right. And his legs.
There’s just a hole where his eyes and nose and mouth used to be.Hurry mother hurry hurry and wake me up. I’m having a
nightmare mother where are you? Hurry mother. I’m down here. Here mother.
Here in the darkness. Pick me up. Rockabye baby. Now I lay me down to sleep.
Oh mother hurry because I can’t wake up. Over here mother.It’s a dizzying, sickening journey Joe takes, and we, the audience, are with
him every step of the way. Every discovery he makes, we make with him. Be it
memories from the past or what’s happening now, we hear Joe’s thoughts because
all Joe can do is think. And it’s awfully hard not being able to communicate or
move or—anything. But this story is a testament to the awesome strength of the
human character, and gradually Joe starts figuring things out. He discovers how
he can tell time, and he learns to read vibrations. And he realizes how this
wasn’t his fight, that you can’t fight for “Liberty,” it’s an empty word and it
makes no sense for millions of men to die or be injured in its name.Ricardo Perez-Gonzalez is remarkable as Joe—the nuance and texture he brings
to this immensely difficult part is extraordinary. His body control is stunning;
every muscle, every ounce of his being is focused and dedicated to this part.
Even though Perez-Gonzalez is clearly in possession of all his limbs, and moves
freely around the stage, he is able to bring Joe, “the living dead man” to us,
using only an old-fashioned wooden chair for his set. (Note: Perez-Gonzalez is
only playing Joe in two of the performances, Mark Lindberg will take over for
the second half of the run.) Gerritt Turner’s directing is sharp and poignant.
The lighting design (by Carlton Ward) and the sound design (by Kristyn R. Smith)
excellently enhance and clarify the show, and all aspects of the production work
in perfect harmony with one another.Needless to say, this is a deeply stirring, intelligent, terrifying piece of
theatre. The script, by Bradley Rand Smith, is fiercely loyal to Trumbo's novel.
I know this, because I went out immediately and bought the book. And though this
story may take place in 1918, it’s awfully timely. Then, they were fighting for
“Liberty.” Today, we’re fighting for “Democracy.”
August 15, 2005