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.
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.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
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 www.zspace.org.