Oregon City actors capture WWI British poets' horror, humanity
When Jane Fellows speaks of "Not About Heroes," the play she is directing for New Century Players, she emphasizes that it is "a story that needs to be told ... and then told again."
The production, opening Nov. 2, centers on British poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, who cross paths in a mental hospital during World War I. The writings of both men reflect the immensity of the conflict and give voice to the millions who died and tens of million who were injured.
"Not About Heroes" is "relevant historically, is about a friendship that is delightful and compelling, and exposes us to two poets who were not afraid to take us into the dark places of World War I," Fellows said. It "is about honor, about loss, about humanity."
Celebrating the armistice
In the course of the play, the two renowned writers "are brought to life through their brief encounters with each other and through their poems and letters. Their experiences during World War I are intensely vivid and personal," Fellows said.
"The structure of the play is a memoir by Sassoon as he reflects on his private times with Owen," she said.
"Owen does not survive the last days of the war, and Sassoon, in the play, discovers the way to honor his friend and fellow poet as he struggles with the loss."
The timing of this production is relevant, as it is set to honor the 100th anniversary of the armistice, said Kevin Yell, an NCP board member, who plays Sassoon.
Yell grew up in England, so is familiar with many of the personal, military and historical references in the play.
In 2014, the U.K. had many events to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, and at that time Yell suggested to the theater group that it do something to mark the 100th anniversary of the war's end on Nov. 11.
He was motivated because "Oregon generally, and Clackamas particularly, has a very strong link to our veterans. It would be a way to honor those no longer here as well as shed a light on the military loss that has continued to occur through to the present day."
Yell suggested that Fellows direct "Not About Heroes" because he had seen her one-woman show, "The Belle of Amherst," based on the life of American poet Emily Dickinson.
"I felt Jane was the sort of director, especially with her affinity for poetry, who would be perfect for leading this production," he said.
In addition, both Fellows' father and her grandfather served in France during the world wars.
Yell said he also wanted to "do his bit to try to ensure that people here know the origins of so much of Europe's and the world's recent and current turmoil, including unrest in Ireland, the Middle East and Turkey."
"A two-person play presents its own challenges and rewards. The sheer volume of lines for both actors to learn and make their own is staggering," Fellows said.
Both Yell and Dustin Fuentes, a Rex Putnam High School graduate who plays Owen, "have brought such an ethic to the rehearsal process. They are always prepared and so ready to take the emotional risks involved with portraying these vulnerable poets," she said.
Yell describes his character as a "passionate and insightful poet, as well as a decorated and popular war hero, who used his notoriety to try to benefit the well-being and safety of other soldiers."
He added that many people will be able to relate to Sassoon's experience of the "idealism of youth" and "to his willingness to be brave, even foolhardy, in defending those he loves."
His character "was lucky to live long enough to grow into wisdom, being able to synthesize his experiences with hindsight."
To prepare for the role, Yell said he read Sassoon's war poems, his autobiography and many biographies about the poet.
In the play, Sassoon acts as the narrator to the audience in the present time, then relives a memory as he tells his own story.
"The challenge is to bring the audience along on this 'time travel.' It is also very much an emotional roller coaster, rather like PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], as memories and dreams come back to haunt him," Yell said.
Yell has found it most rewarding working with Fellows and Fuentes "on a piece that has something important to say historically as well as to the present."
Fuentes said his character has a "passionate love for poetry and a joyous and romantic spirit."
But he noted that Owen "was severely conflicted and damaged by the realities of war."
What he likes best is Owen's "excitability; even working through his darkest hours he was able to let the true spirit of his heart shine out."
Fuentes said he read Owen's poetry, read articles about him online, and watched documentary pieces on the writer and his life to prepare for the role.
"The most challenging aspect of this show is trying to do Wilfred Owen justice. This was a real person with real experiences," Fuentes said.
"When you're playing an individual who actually existed, you're attempting to get lost in this person and to convey their joys and hardships in an honest way."
Fuentes noted that he and Yell have spent the past three months getting to know their characters on a personal level, and he is excited to share that journey with an audience.
'Horrors of war'
"I really hope people can see the play to both honor veterans, as well as ask the hard questions about who really pays for war," Yell said.
He noted that issues like military PTSD — called shell shock in World War I — suicide and the inability for soldiers to regain normal lives remain unchanged 100 years later.
"This is what both Sassoon and Owen were writing about."
In the play, there are moments of angst and pain, but "there are lots and lots of small moments of light and laughter. Both men loved language, so they play with words against each other a lot," Yell said. "And as their relationship develops from mentor/student to equals, Owen starts to give as good as he gets and that delights Sassoon. The student has grown enough to become the teacher."
There is a scene in the play when Sassoon and Owen are talking outdoors after a heavy conversation in the hospital.
"It's a nice snapshot of their relationship. It's amazing to watch them go from talking about the realities of war to discussing their formative years and their families," Fuentes said.
Yell said that "Not About Heroes" is the perfect play for families to attend and then discuss afterward. He hopes it generates discussion of both the physical and mental injuries that result from war, which is a topic that families may not address openly.
Yell hopes that after seeing the play, audience members will realize that "even in the midst of war, it is always compassion and love, in all its manifestations, that move us to heroism, bring us back to sanity and teach us the way forward."
"When asked to direct this play, I was humbled and honored to work with the words of these extraordinary poets," Fellows said. "The senselessness of war and the gravity of honoring those who fought and died for a cause is a juxtaposition we should always struggle with."
She added: "One hundred years after the armistice, the questions of why so many died in order to remap Europe still remain. The bells rang out, but the bottom line was about the suffering."
Honor the armistice
What: New Century Players Community Theatre presents "Not About Heroes."
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2, 3, 9, 10, 16 and 17, and 2 p.m. Nov. 4, 11 and 18
Where: Rex Putnam High School Blackbox Theatre, 4950 S.E. Roethe Road, Oak Grove
Tickets: adults $20, seniors $15, students $10. Tickets are available at the door, online at NewCenturyPlayers.org or by calling 503-367-2620.