Cold War vet recommends 'Not About Heroes'
"I write to keep them alive," a New Century Players character in "Not About Heroes" declares. He speaks as the author of the memoir that is the basis for the story, which follows the deepening friendship between two soldiers in World War I — the older one whose reputation and poetry are admired by the younger soldier, a would-be poet. (See this newspaper's Oct. 31 preview article, "Actors capture WWI British poets' horror, humanity.")
The acting was so convincing that in the aftermath my mind was ruminating about the characters as though they were actual men I had come to know intimately — Siegfried Sassoon, an officer, and Wilfred Owen, the younger soldier. That rarely happens for me.
The drama focuses on two of the many millions who fought from 1914 to 1918 in an insufferably long and deadly war. The well-chosen and engaging production extends with several more performances this weekend through Nov. 18 in Oak Grove.
I am not a theater critic, but I learned to appreciate high-quality live theater during my own military service in East Coast ports for my Navy ship, when I would sometimes schedule a weekend of plays in New York City, on and off Broadway. That theater background inspired me to encourage veterans and their families to consider attending a performance of "Not About Heroes." I also felt compelled to write about the play from my own memories of military service, not in combat but in the perilous showdown over nuclear missiles that Russia was installing in Cuba, when my ship, a tanker, spent three weeks steaming alongside aircraft carriers and destroyers to connect hoses pumping fuel to flotilla warships for President Kennedy's successful blockade.
I had an older uncle who had been sent to Europe for WWI, and I was intrigued as a boy by the WWI-era weapon prominent in his gun case. Others may still have family pictures of great-uncles or a great-grandfather involved in WWI, but millions more Americans were swept into Korean, Vietnamese, Iraqi or Afghani warfare from the perpetual military actions that have taken place.
For a war veteran memorial experience, take advantage of the beautiful Rex Putnam High School Black Box Theatre, with the convenience of free and ample parking and a low-cost admission of $15 to $20 that community theater can provide. Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 16-17, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 18. Tickets are available in advance at newcenturyplayers.org, and at the door before performances at 4950 S.E. Roethe Road.
I feel lucky to have discovered the Black Box Theatre and the play from a friend, who had volunteered to usher and invited me to attend with her. Some of the dialogue in "Not About Heroes," though articulated well, can require patience from an audience, because the issues and vocabulary are not close enough to what Americans — perhaps especially younger Americans — are knowledgeable about. Wars are no longer declared or formally ended; military actions are continuous from "volunteers," not a drafted Army. At a time when membership is declining in organizations like Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, the Portland area is well served by this play during the 100th year anniversary of the WWI Armistice.
The play's title, "Not About Heroes," probably comes from one of Sassoon's lines that I recall as "There are no war heroes here." The younger soldier, in contrast, is emotionally preoccupied by the obligation he feels to experience the violence and likely death that seemed mandated to become fully human. Owen, as played by Dustin Fuentes, sometimes seems actually energized by the risk of likely death, though occasionally he is reduced to writhing on the floor sobbing, trembling and incoherent after traumatic combat.
But the first scenes of the play are on a lighter note. The audience, seated intimately near the stage, was soon laughing from comic touches that reappear now and then throughout the otherwise emotionally intense and tragic drama.
I am embarrassed to admit — as we may feel apologetic when we do not understand a joke — that I did not catch all of the humorous lines in the drama that inspired laughter from many in the audience. At first, I may have been distracted by the British brogue, especially from the actor Kevin Yell, who immigrated from England, but otherwise I think it just took me awhile to empathize and easily understand the yearning for friendship between the two characters. Their thinking and feelings, however, may not resonate quickly for some who attend the play — perhaps especially younger citizens.
I am mindful now of apparently successful appeals to join perpetual warfare: the flashy TV advertising during NFL and other sports telecasts. I am taken aback by the reality that these portrayals of dazzling weapons, warplanes, ships and armed vehicles successfully attract sufficient volunteers to fulfill quotas for the standing Army, Marines, Air Force and Navy.
What a change from my own perspective, because from watching relatives and neighbors say goodbye and leave for WWII and sometimes never come back or return crippled from wounds (including an uncle whose letters I have saved after he was shot down flying a British-made low-altitude bomber over Italy) I always dreaded the prospect of military service. I approached my own citizenship mandate to accept the draft as something that merely came unavoidably from being a male. I would simply have to put up with the burden of stressful basic training and when drafted, I would simply be resigned to whatever I was ordered to do.
In fact, it was my own perhaps extravagant fear of bayonet training, which I could not imagine myself doing, that led me — just before I would have had to report for Army duty — to apply for and be accepted for the officer school in Newport, Rhode Island. And that, not any sense of possible heroism, is how I became a veteran of the Cold War.
Like me, audience members who attend performances of "Not About Heroes" may find some of the thinking of the WWI characters in the play almost unintelligible or confusing because the earlier cultural context for thinking about war is so different from ours in the 21st century.
Returning to the complicated two-act community theater production, director Jane Fellows explains "the sheer volume of lines for both actors to learn and make their own is staggering." I am grateful to all of the community theater volunteers who made "Not About Heroes" possible. After seeing the play, I found myself wanting to subscribe to the New Century Players as a patron.
Dennis Renner is still discovering Portland amenities, having relocated from points east to retire near daughters.