nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 12, 2006
Home Front, the new play at La MaMa by Daniel Algie, is as potent a drama about the effects of war as I've ever seen. Inspired by Euripides's Herakles, and set in 1972, at the height of the Vietnam War, Home Front is about the return of a soldier, Harrison, to his Midwestern family after eight years away.
The play begins on a summer evening, in the front yard of the family home, where Harrison's father Arthur is playing with his two grandsons, Jason (10 years old) and Bobby (8). They're interrupted by Harrison's wife, Meg, who is in a bad way; as we'll soon discover, she's often in a bad way, because Harrison has been MIA for seven years and she's being urged by Arthur and others to finally have him declared dead and begin to move on with her life. But she claims this evening that she got a phone call from Harrison. Arthur is more than skeptical and a fierce argument ensues.
And then, as Act One nears its end, Harrison wanders into the yard.
For the first time (but not the last) in this canny play, the nature of the conflict shifts markedly. A study of a family coping with the loss of a loved one—a loss utterly without closure—has suddenly morphed into a story of reunion and rehabilitation. In Act Two, Harrison has to tell Meg about the hellish ordeal he's been through, not just for his own survival but hers as well. And then—and here's a place where Algie really succeeds in moving the audience—Harrison has to meet his sons, one of whom was born after he left; in two astonishingly tender, truthful scenes, we see Jason and Bobby tentatively try to figure out how to respond to this stranger who is their father, and we see Harrison experience a total breakdown, full of love and guilt and hope and confusion, as he tries to figure out how to respond to these two strangers who are his sons.
Algie has one more twist in store for us, one that I didn't quite see coming even though I'm fully familiar with the legend of Herakles. Home Front shifts from a painful, intimate story of personal tragedy and renewal to a searing classical tragedy that's an indictment of the endless cycles of senseless brutality that Harrison's generation and now our own seem unable to escape from. It's so raw and potent that it's almost hard to bear, watching it in the confines of a theatre.
Algie's work here is stunning; by finding what's timeless and epic in Harrison's story, he reminds us of truths that humankind seems to keep forgetting. When do the lessons of war ever get learned? When do we finally understand that the victims of war are everybody; that all of humanity is diminished by it?
E. Randahl Hoey has directed the piece with precision and sensitivity, carefully emphasizing the homely ordinariness of Algie's story until the last possible moment, when the big themes finally take over the stage with savage cruelty. The design—Josh Zangen's set, Joel E. Silver's lighting, and Erika Ingrid Lillienthal's costumes—are all rendered with naturalistic simplicity. The performances are splendidly understated as well. Fletcher McTaggert is revelatory as Harrison, nakedly vulnerable, wearing a powder keg of emotions on his sleeve. Christy Pusz plays Meg, and if her transition from a wife not ready to accept the apparent loss of her husband in Act One to self-sufficient helpmeet in Act Two is a little jarring, she's always doing what the script calls for her to do. H Clark is excellent in the small but complicated role of Ted, Harrison's best friend who is now Deputy Sheriff. Child actors Connell Cole and Anthony Duke Claus are fine as Bobby and Jason, achieving the very difficult goal of playing two ordinary boys without pretense or preciousness. Rounding out the company is Joseph Jamrog, still a little unsteady in places as Arthur, but rising to the occasion to bring real emotional weight to the play's final scenes.
As a program note points out, with thousands of American soldiers returning home from Iraq now and in the future, Home Front is clearly a timely play. But like its Euripidean antecedent, this is a play that transcends a single place or conflict and reveals something important and fundamental about the greatest costs of war, the ones we too seldom seem to think about or focus on—the tragic and inevitable toll on human lives.