Great stories, theater and heart in Word for Word’s Men

Ryan Tasker (left), Armando McClain (center) and Arwen Anderson in “Gold Star,” one of two short stories by Siobhan Fallon performed in Word for Word’s You Know When the Men Are Gone. Below: Marilet Martinez (left), McClain and Tasker in “The Last Stand.” Photos by Mark Leialoha

Sometimes it’s too easy to forget we’re a nation at war, and that’s not at all a good thing to be able to say. But it’s true, especially here in the Bay Area bubble, where the war seems especially far away. For that reason, among many others, Word for Word’s You Know When the Men Are Gone is a powerful and important piece of theater. Not to mention a moving and beautiful one.

It’s nice to see Word for Word, the extraordinary company that turns short fiction into fully staged works of theater without changing the original text, working in such a contemporary mode. The two stories that comprise this show, “The Last Stand” and “Gold Star,” are by Siobhan Fallon a military spouse who chronicles the lives of young soldiers and their families in her 2011 collection that gives this show its name. We don’t know the ages of all the characters we meet on stage, but the two main characters are 21 and 24, and it’s conceivable this entire show contains a crowd of people under 30, and that’s only one of the aspects of this show that makes it so interesting.

The first story, “The Last Stand,” has a universality about it that could apply to the story of a soldier from just about any war coming home to the life that has become so idealized in his head while he was away. Directed by Joel Mullennix, the story is told from the point of view of Kit Murphy (Chad Deverman), a young soldier seriously wounded in an IED explosion in Iraq. He was the only survivor in his vehicle when the body of his sergeant ended up providing a sort of shield from the flames.


Now able to walk on crutches, his left foot still enclosed in a cast and a protective boot, Kit arrives, hoping to fall back into the arms of his wife, Helena (Roselyn Hallett), who, in her husband’s absence, has moved back home with her parents and started taking college classes. The reunion isn’t at all what Kit was hoping for, though Helena is hardly the bad guy in this sad scenario.

We meet Kit again in the second story, “Gold Star,” but he’s just a supporting player in this tale, directed by Amy Kossow. The focus here is on Josie, the widow of the sergeant who died in the explosion that wounded Kit. Josie (Arwen Anderson) is navigating the best she can through her grief, which is to say she’s not doing well at all. She suffers through the funeral (but avoids the memorial service), reluctantly accepts the company of soldiers who are assigned to watch over her and the other wives at Fort Hood who bring her casseroles she won’t eat.

When she gets a call from Kit saying he’d like to pay her a visit, she eagerly makes the date because unlike all her other visitors, Kit was with her husband in his final moments, and she craves that connection.

The selection of these two interconnected stories is rather brilliant because the evening ends up feeling like a two-act play. The emotional weight of the first story carries through to the second, making the ending all the more potent and emotionally wrenching. And like the stories themselves, the directors and actors are expert at sharing telling details about the experience of war on the front lines and on the civilian home front.

Even the set by Jacqueline Scott plays a part in those details. Built on a theme of stars and stripes, the front of the stage features big stars in the floor, while the stripes take the form of narrow white sheets hanging down from high above the stage. Those versatile sheets become bed dressing in a cheap motel, decorations for a strained homecoming celebration and tents in Iraq. Through the space between the sheets (and thanks to some beautiful lighting by Drew Yerys) we see glimpses of life in Iraq and sand dunes in the distance.

Like all Word for Word shows, the ensemble is vitally important, playing multitudes of roles and filling in all kinds of descriptive blanks. Marilet Martinez, Ryan Tasker and Armando McClain are fantastic as Army buddies, waitresses, officers, ghosts and bar bimbos. They create a believable world around the protagonists and also keep the stage lively. The inventive staging that so often marks a Word for Word show is alive and well in these stories but never distracts from the emotional core of the stories, which is the human cost of war beyond the casualties and the long, long process of healing wounds both visible and hidden away.

[bonus interviews]
I talked to author Siobhan Fallon and directors Amy Kossow and Joel Mullennix about You Know When the Men Are Gone for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Word for Word’s You Know When the Men Are Gone continues through Feb. 24 at Z Space, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$55. Call 866-811-4111 or visit

Guest critic Leslie Ribovich reviews `Busy World’

As a critic at the Oakland Tribune and its sister newspapers, one of my greatest pleasures was instituting a teen theater critic internship, and it was my luck to launch the program with Leslie Ribovich, who was then a senior at Albany High School. For much of her final year in high school, she would accompany me to shows and write her own reviews, which than ran in the newspaper or online (or both).

Well, Leslie has finished her freshman year at a prestigious New York college, and while she’s home this summer, I asked and she graciously accepted my offer to be a Theater Dogs guest critic. It is my pleasure to present her work. (For my review of the show, click here.) She remains an astute observer and a wonderful writer.

Aurora’s Busy World Provokes Thought of Biblical Proportions

By Leslie Ribovich

You could label The Busy World is Hushed, currently at Aurora Theatre Company, as a political play with a strong message about the Episcopal Church’s relationship with homosexuality, but the designation would be misleading. Yes, the characters grapple with God and predestination, and yes, two of them are homosexual, in a church no less, but playwright Keith Bunin presents the issues far too complexly to take sides.

In a political play, you look for the point of view. In this play, it’s fragmented. We see three different points of view and wonder with whom the playwright agrees.

Is it Hannah (Anne Darragh) who has the first and last line of the play (often an indicator of point of view)? Hannah is an Episcopalian minister and seminary professor who is amazed by the idea that an infant could be the most powerful being, but also refers to “doe-faced Jesus-freaks from the Midwest.”

Or Brandt (Chad Deverman), an excellent writer with a dying father who is unqualified for the job of synthesizing Hannah’s research on an unearthed gospel into writing?

What about Thomas (an incredibly charismatic James Wagner), Hannah’s son named for the apostle, who heard gospels instead of bedtime stories and believes his mother is, “fully informed and yet swallows her own Kool Aid”?

What if all three of them say things that make a lot of sense? And then say things that we couldn’t disagree with more?

We don’t walk away from this play knowing what political stance the playwright is taking. That makes good political theatre because these issues aren’t black and white. Religious affiliation and belief in God address a fundamental part of human existence. The play thrives in sticky territory that must be dealt with gracefully and honestly, which Bunin and director Robin Stanton do.

Without a political or religious agenda laid out for us, the audience must think about the issues. And what’s theatre good for if it doesn’t make you think at least a little?

Bunin’s play is also satisfying dramatically. Hannah hires Brandt despite his inadequacies, (a move that more scatter-brained professor types could benefit from following). His religious views are in flux: the Bible was the first piece of writing that he “truly and consciously loved” and yet he questions whether religion is a desperate attempt to make death more bearable. He tells Hannah upfront that as a gay man, he feels at best queasy when faced with the church’s attitude toward homosexuality.

Thomas enters the scene covered in animal blood and “dried crap” immediately after Hannah explains that she despises stained glass because it epitomizes the self-important nonsense of Christianity and makes a mockery of motherhood (one of Bunin’s many clever juxtapositions). Thomas is happy when he notices Brandt “looking his way.”

So we’ve got two characters hard at work on Hannah’s book and the mysterious history therein; a romantic relationship with too many psychological and practical barriers to produce anything less than one big fight; and a mother/ son relationship with expectations of biblical proportions.

The heat is raised on the drama in certain scenes, even visually at the end of Act 1 when light designer Kurt Landisman goes for a Godlike, transcendent quality. The effect highlights the production’s melodramatic elements more than creates a religious metaphor, but it certainly excites you for Act 2.

The set has elegant stained glass windows for Hannah to deconstruct, boxes of Thomas’ deceased father’s things, and enough piles of books that when Brandt comments, how innovative to have a library without shelves, we laugh.

A large window overlooks a slightly out-of-focus, black-and-white photograph of New York’s upper west side. Set designer Eric E. Sinkkonen’s choice might indicate that the discussions in the playing space are timeless; they are somewhat removed from the outside world. The text takes a while to identify where they are geographically, and we might in fact like to know less about the city outside the church. When Bunin mentions “The Strand” and “NYU,” we wonder if the characters aren’t believable enough to live in the more ambiguous, slightly out-of-focus world that Sinkkonen creates.

This is political theater where the specific represents the big picture, or at least gets us wondering about it. After all, the big picture is nothing if we don’t understand how it affects people we know or can relate to. In The Busy World is Hushed, we do.

The actors are all fabulous – they’ve figured out the emotional nuances of their characters to a tee. I must say: after a year in New York, Bay Area theatre still tops my list. Even a show like this that shouldn’t necessarily be the-best-thing-I’ve-seen-all-year, feels so much more organic than anything I saw in New York. Kudos to the Aurora for creating risky, thought-provoking theatre.

For information about The Busy World is Hushed visit


Review: `The Busy World Is Hushed’

Opened June 19, 2008 at the Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley


Anne Darragh (left) is an Episcopalian minister and Chad Deverman is her writing assistant in Keith Bunin’s The Busy World Is Hushed at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley. Photos by David Allen


Thoughts on faith, love, family make noise in Hushed
««« ½

Aurora Theatre Company concludes its 16th season with a thoughtful love story/dysfunctional family drama cloaked in theological robes.

Keith Bunin’s The Busy World Is Hushed has its soapy, melodramatic moments, but there’s much more to the play – musings on gays, God, getting lost and being found — that satisfies both intellectually and emotionally.

There aren’t that many plays around that address the notion of faith from both an organized religion standpoint and from a less structured spiritual place. Bunin’s play opens the conversation without preaching too hard or making anyone look foolish. That in itself makes the play worth seeing.

In addition to an intelligent discussion of God’s place in our modern lives, Busy World throws in a tortured mother-son relationship, a love story between two mid-20s men and a crisis of faith for a son slowly losing his father to a terminal illness. That’s a lot to stuff into two hours, but Bunin manages it, and director Robin Stanton (who did such wonderful work on the Aurora’s Permanent Collection) lends it a naturalism infused with realistic rhythms that pull the audience into the fraught conversations.

How appropriate that this tale is told simply – one set (by Eric E. Sinkkonen, complete with stained-glass windows above, and a regular window looking out onto a cold, gray New York) and a trinity of characters in various stages of belief.

Hannah (Anne Darragh) is an Episcopalian minister and seminary professor. She is a great believer in God – not the God depicted in stained-glass windows or trumped up Catholic mythology but the human Jesus who spoke and taught and performed miracles. She’s liberal in her beliefs but strict in her faith. She’s in the process of decoding a newly discovered gospel that could turn out to predate the existing gospels in the Bible, and if genuine, could be the closest thing to the true words of Christ.

To help her write the book on the gospels, she has hired an aspiring author, Brandt (Chad Deverman), whose own writing is blocked and needs a project to help him concentrate. Brandt’s father has been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and his belief in anything is severely shaken. “All religion,” Brandt says, “is an attempt to make death more bearable.”

And then there’s Hannah’s 26-year-old son, Thomas (James Wagner), who doesn’t believe in anything beyond running away. He has just returned from “getting lost,” a game he plays where he throws himself into someplace wild with few provisions then challenges himself to make it out alive. Damaged by his father’s death (and possible suicide) before he was even born, Thomas resents his mother’s immersion in faith and the fact that her relationship with Jesus is often stronger than her relationship with him.

Stanton’s actors are excellent, and this is one of those plays that benefits tremendously from the Aurora’s intimacy. There’s no escaping the passion of Thomas and Brandt’s budding romance just as there’s no turning away from the final confrontation between mother and son, with God, hypocrisy and loneliness wafting through the chasm between them. Bunin comes down hard on Hannah and Thomas, and their rift, full of harsh accusations and hard truths, is truly painful.

There’s not a lot of peace or resolution in this Busy World, which is best, but there’s a lot of common sense and even insight into the complexities of faith and the complexities of living outside faith. Hearts and souls are tangled and torn, God is abused and praised. And the audience is left in a state of contemplation.

The Busy World Is Hushed continues through July 20 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$42. Call 510-843-4822 or visit for information.

The play’s title, by the way comes from the following benediction:

May the Lord support us all the day long,
Till the shades lengthen and the evening comes
and the busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.

Then in his mercy may he give us
a safe lodging
and a holy rest,
and peace at last.