Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
February 3, 2006
One of the most striking moments in Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue comes when Elliot, home from his first tour in Iraq, is interviewed by a local news station. He tells the story of how he was injured once, then is asked to tell it again, for the camera, only without the expletives. He gives this task his best shot, but the sanitized version of the story proves both almost comical and almost impossible for him to get through. Playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes captures the strange way that this current war is refracted through the media, through a culture of celebrity that makes returning soldiers heroes as long as they frame their experience in the way the public wants to hear it.
As in a musical fugue, the play also interweaves the stories of Elliot’s father and grandfather, both veterans themselves, and with experiences strikingly similar to Elliot’s. His father fought in Vietnam and his grandfather in Korea. Elliot’s mother, Ginny, was also in Vietnam as an army nurse, but her story feels oddly disconnected from the family narrative. Hudes notes in small snapshot-like moments the way war has changed, or in many aspects not changed, for the front-line grunt. Director Davis McCallum’s enormously effective staging helps to underscore the parallels among the war stories.
Although the writing is lush throughout, Elliot’s story is the strongest and most interesting of the three. I think this is partly because of its present-day relevance and partly because of Armando Riesco’s standout performance, but the writing here also feels fresher, filled with greater urgency and immediacy. Hudes has captured well Elliot’s youth, his complex emotions about the war in which he’s found himself—pride in the US Marine Corps mixes with constant nightmares about his first kill—and the difficulty he has in processing what has happened to him.
The various pieces of the story don’t always hang together well. The stories of Elliot’s father and grandfather feel a little less specific; it’s not that they’re lacking in detail so much as that the detail itself feels familiar. And the story of Elliot’s mother, Ginny, feels comparatively undeveloped. Because much of the piece is made up of monologues, with each character in a different time frame, I didn’t get a strong sense of how the family relationships were impacted by the war experiences of each.
Director McCallum has done an excellent job, effectively balancing the play’s lyrical writing with the punch of its subject matter, and the tension of war with the relaxation of the play’s “safe” places, Ginny’s garden in Philadelphia and a military hospital in Vietnam. McCallum’s staging, which keeps all the actors as constant witnesses to one another’s confessions and revelations, structures physical bonds that help to give the production a sense of the familial bonds that are somewhat lacking in the script.
The production design is also striking, carving an intimate playing area with seating on three sides out of a larger space. Sandra Goldmark’s set is simple, elegant, and effective, anchored strikingly by a lush back wall of greenery representing Ginny’s garden. The music (by Michael Friedman) and sound design (by Walter Trarbach and Gabe Wood) help enormously in structuring the play by using subtle music shifts to signal time shifts.
It’s rare for me to walk away from a play feeling as strongly affected by the directing as I was by the writing, but that’s exactly what happened here. The play is intriguing and tells an important story on its own merits; the strength of the collaboration between playwright and director makes the production much more than the sum of its parts.