“I tell you, War is Hell.” So declared Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman in his 1879 address to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy. In Shades, a New York premiere presented by VIDCAPT in the studio at Cherry Lane Theatre, writer Paula J. Caplan considers the hellish aftermath of war on 20th-century American veterans and their families, referencing her long-term experiences as a clinical and research psychologist, activist, and advocate.
Set in 1997, the play offers a “Fanfare for the Common Man” (the production includes a recording of the 1942 musical piece by American composer Aaron Copland)—the patriotic citizens who sacrifice their own well-being in support of their country—as well as a condemnation of our nation’s ongoing issues of discrimination and bigotry, and the US government’s lies, neglect, and cover-ups, which have impacted them.
The story revolves around a Jewish-American family suffering the lingering effects of military service. Val, a practicing nurse and early anti-war protestor, has come to visit her soon-to-be-retired widowed father Jerry, a World War II veteran. Her brother Don, a divorced father of two and a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, with whom she has a combative relationship, is battling a mysterious debilitating illness. While there, Val also comes to care for June, an African-American military secretary paralyzed from the neck down when shrapnel from an explosion in Nam lodged in her spine. As a result of her injury, June’s husband left her, and Val recently lost her own husband, of Japanese descent, who had also served in the war.
While the themes are ones that should never be forgotten, the heavy-handed script (self-described as a “dramedy”) contains an overwhelming number of worst-case scenarios afflicting the four inter-related characters, from familial dysfunction, divorce, and abandonment, to personal secrets, denial, and a failure to communicate; from PTSD, the carcinogenic effects of Agent Orange, and suicide, to racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism. As a result, Shades plays more like a relentless socio-political diatribe on recent history and a clichéd lesson on the psychological value of talking about the problems that haunt you, than a focused work of theater, exhaustively presenting, en masse, information that has been known for decades.
As directed By Alex Keegan, the cast–Ashley Wren Collins as Val, Carson Lee as Don, Hal Robinson as Jerry, and Holly Walker as June–is hindered by often stilted implausible dialogue (with lines like “My delicious sweet nephews”) from realistically connecting with the characters and their emotions. Their long-winded monologues sound like the playwright was “transcribing interviews” (as Val does for the book she’s compiling in the show) with the multitude of subjects she treated during her lifetime of studies, rather than creating believable situations among her characters. Lee and Robinson make the best of the lines they’ve been given, and Walker brings some spunk and dignity to her role, but Collins’ exaggerated smiles and histrionic facial expressions, feigned laughter and crying, do little to engender sympathy for Val’s melodramatic plight.
In keeping with Shades’ homage to “the common man,” costumes by Anna Blazer, props by Elizabeth Frino, and a set design by Becca Kleinman (with some symbolically burnt walls around the family’s living room) evoke the unattractive and unrefined styles of the period. Alex deNevers spotlighting directs attention to the actors’ monologues, and the sound design by Lawrence Schober is clear and balanced for both the dialogue and the tone-setting background music.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and ten minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.