“This we’ll defend” is the motto of the U.S. Army, and the Theatrical Mining Company is going above and beyond to fulfill that commitment in its world premiere production of Robert Garcia’s Unlucky Soldiers, about a Vietnam veteran’s struggle with PTSD. At the performance I attended, unforeseen circumstances forced them to move their venue, but on less than 24 hours’ notice, Director Barry Feinstein re-blocked the show for the new stage, and Charles Danforth III even rigged up a makeshift lighting plot for it.
Sadly, the cast at that performance outnumbered the audience by nearly two-to-one, but you’d never have known it from the intensity the players brought to bear. Feinstein is renowned for goading his actors, many of whom have little prior stage experience, to “spill their guts” in an all-but-literal manner, and that approach has seldom been more appropriate than here, where the wounds of the shell-shocked protagonist, Andre (Adrian McDermott), remain gaping.
They clearly have still not healed for the playwright either, nearly half a century after his tour with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam. During a post-show discussion, he mentioned several autobiographical incidents that would have been compelling additions to this play, but which were evidently still too painful for him to dramatize.
One can only hope Garcia continues to exorcise those demons, and that he will gain a measure of aesthetic distance in the process. At present, his plotting is nearly as jumbled as Andre’s nightmares, though unfortunately not as horrifying. Scenes with his pious mother (Peggy Friedman), his incipient hippie girlfriend (Jessica Taylor), and his comrades-in-arms both living (William Hawthorne) and dead (Abraham Williams) hit the target initially but become more scattershot as the play progresses, and even his much-touted antagonist, a suavely sinister figure called Reaper (Keyon Harris), turns out to be all talk.
More distressingly still, the talk in this script is often clichéd, particularly when it comes from the mouth of Andre’s psychologist, Dr. Ann (Billie Taylor). “This isn’t my first time at the rodeo,” she assures us. Worse, she manages to say with a straight face, “Some of our veterans seem to have a hard time readjusting to civilian life. We don’t know why – we just don’t have the data.”
But as chance would have it, Garcia gives Dr. Ann the play’s most poetically resonant line as well. Referring to the infamous Domino Theory used to justify American intervention in Southeast Asia, she ruefully observes, “Those damn dominoes just keep falling” – and her words ring true on all too many levels, from the fallout of that war to our current foreign policy and everything in between.
I found myself wishing, in fact, that Garcia had built on that metaphor by having Andre and Reaper settle their score with a climactic game of dominoes, rather than the more hackneyed throw of the dice they opt for instead. Though not as much of a battle of wits as the chess match a similarly haunted soldier plays with the Grim Reaper in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, a domino challenge would at least give Andre more than just his dubious luck on which to stake his rendezvous with destiny.
Garcia leaves that fate open, and though his title seems to forecast the inevitable, we may recall that in the end, none of us can achieve more than a Pyrrhic victory. What matters is to keep fighting against the odds, just as this brave theater company is doing, even when the cause may not appear to be worth the sacrifice.
Unlucky Soldiers plays through September 23, 2018, at the Downtown Cultural Arts Center, 401 N. Howard Street, in Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the door. Veterans are admitted free.