The Things They Carried is a personal people’s history. A sharply conjured chronicle. It is told at the most granular of levels by a platoon of characters. Performed solo by David Sitler, the production flies off of the stage with scenes depicting the ghosts of war and the burden of guilt one may carry after being in the middle of war’s carnage.
The Things They Carried is a fearless masterwork; ferocious for how the Vietnam War is depicted at a confessional level. It is sensitive and brutal, rough and tender. And it has military ironic humor to boot.
Yet know this; the play’s overall perspective is the central character who thinks himself a coward; thinking “I went to war” rather than making a different choice. While The Things They Carried has a time and place associated with memories of the Vietnam War, the production is one that is likely all too familiar with current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Things They Carried has been adapted by Jim Stowell from the classic Vietnam War book The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien about the fog and purple haze of wartime. The production has clear, empathetic direction by Kate Alexander. The production is one part of the 3rd Annual Logan Festival of Solo Performances, a one-of-a-kind festival in the DMV area.
In adapting O’Brien’s classic book, Stowell maintains it as a collection of interrelated stories about Vietnam War grunts (military slang for foot soldiers). The stories become short sketches about humping (military slang for arduous hiking to a combat mission while carrying a heavy pack) through the swamps, alternating with scenes about one particular grunt (a character named O’Brien) in his life before and military service. It also includes a scene depicting O’Brien’s return to Vietnam decades later–this time not with a platoon of men with weapons, but traveling with his daughter.
Along the way, The Things They Carried chronicles events big and small. It quickly gives one of the reasons for its title, as the character O’Brien articulates all the personal everyday items a grunt might carry beyond lethal military gear–items that take on magical powers or connections to home. This includes the physical weight of each item mentioned. As performed by Sitler, the psychological weight of each item is even heavier as he describes each with a specific cadence for its use and value.
Sitler vividly takes on the guise of a small squad of men under the command of 1st Lt. Cross. Beyond the “fictional” Tim O’Brien, Sitler portrays a half-dozen or so others. He does so with highly earthy, emotive language. It is the language of men with nothing left to lose but their lives. Sitler roams the stage (Bruce Price, scenic designer) with pent-up energy that is unleashed in moments of sheer terror. He crawls about the stage with plenty of lights (Diane Fairchild, lighting designer) and helicopter and weapons sounds (Jon Baker, sound designer) adding oomph. An audience becomes right there, in the swamp or the jungle on a miserable rainy night. Anything can happen including death and its aftermath–and guilt even for an enemy.
The squad of characters includes the likes of Azar, who survives the lunacy of war with drugs and a vicious streak. There is 1st Lt. Jimmy Cross, the commanding officer, who blames himself for any death and mistake he makes that can cause a death. And there is O’Brien’s closest buddy, Kiowa. He is a man with a heart and a conscience–and a man who pays the consequences for the small flashlight that O’Brien carries.
Beyond the military troops, one other character becomes key to the character of O’Brien. It is an old man that the fictional O’Brien runs into. An old man with few words. A man who lives on a lake on the Canadian border, in those days when Canada was a refuge for some.
The music that accompanies The Things They Carried are selections from the late 1960s or so. The songs add enormous punch to the overall power of the production. There is Marvin Gaye’s anthem, “What’s Going On?” with the haunting lyrics “Mother, mother/There’s too many of you crying/Brother, brother, brother/There’s far too many of you dying.” This selection is juxtaposed with the song selected to open the show, Edwin Hawkins’ gospel classic “Oh Happy Day” with these lyrics: “Oh happy day/He taught me how/He taught me/Taught me how to watch/He taught me how to watch and fight and pray/fight and pray.”
The Things They Carried is compelling. After all, it is about a bunch of ordinary guys who are sent off to war who long to simply get out alive and wonder out loud if there should be a law that the politicians who vote for war should be compelled to have their sons and daughters on the front lines too.
The Things They Carried is likely not for everyone. It will be most resonant and unforgettable for those willing to make the journey, perhaps back to a time they remember (or have decided to forget) in countries like Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. The Things They Carried transcends a particular time and specific place.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with one intermission.
The Things They Carried is presented as part of 1st Stage’s 3rd Annual Logan Festival of Solo Performance through July 21, 2019, at 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons, VA 22102. For tickets, call 703-854-1856 or go online.