Friday, November 27, 2009

Lions in winter

The three befuddled Heroes at Merrimack Rep.

We never find out whether the fading veterans of Gérald Sibleyras's Heroes (now through Dec. 13 at the Merrimack Rep) were, indeed, actually heroes in the Great War, which threw them together some forty years before the action of the play. But the point is that they are heroes now, facing as grim an enemy as any they faced in the trenches. Indeed it's the same enemy: death, put simply, which sits in wait for them just beyond the sunny, nursing-home patio on which they're playing out their last days. But Sibleyras - a successful French dramatist and screenwriter not much heard of in the States - doesn't dwell on the inevitable so much as suggest it, in a winsome meditation on the limits of life - and indeed all our lives - that succeeds (sometimes despite itself) in the Merrimack's sweet but superficial production.

Sibleyras imagines his three old soldiers in a new kind of trench - their patio is down in a hot little valley, from which they can just see a distant stand of poplars nodding in the breeze (the play's original title was Le vent des Peupliers, "The Wind in the Poplars"). The days pass, summer declines into fall, and our three heroes, Henri, Gustave, and Philippe, decline too; Phillipe's fainting attacks, the result of shrapnel lodged in his brain, grow more frequent, and he and Gustave (who's terrified of the outside world) begin to share a folie à deux about the stone dog guarding their terrace. Phillipe has other delusions as well: he's quite sure, for instance, that the nun who runs the place is polishing off veterans in order to streamline her birthday party calendar.

As you might guess, of this trio Henri has the firmest grip on 'reality,' and whatever tension develops depends on his awareness that his friends are living in a kind of deepening dream; whether to fight it, or fly with it, is the slight script's only open question. Their recurrent fantasies are of battling for freedom - an escape to that stand of poplars, for instance (below) - and, unsurprisingly, sex. Those offended by Gallic romantic attitudes are here forewarned; these charming old duffs frankly rhapsodize about bringing women to climax, as well as making them laugh (one dreams of doing both at once). What poignantly undercuts the strut of these aging cockerels, of course, is the fact that, as one laments, none of them has had "an erection worthy of the name" for months.

Equipped to ford a nearby stream, the heroes of Heroes head for their beloved poplars.

One is reminded that the tramps in Waiting for Godot have much the same problem, and as translated (and trimmed) by Tom Stoppard, Heroes hints at something of Beckett's physical, if not spiritual, devastation. And it's that slight edge of decrepitude - which should, admittedly, be delicately rendered - that the Merrimack misses. The actors of this production (two of whom performed the piece earlier in New York) are all too vital to fully mine the pathos of the script. After all, unlike Beckett's tramps, these three are not so much concerned with the afterlife as with life itself, to which they are trying to hang onto any which way they can - and in an ideal production we should see them wither ever so slightly despite their best efforts.

Yet even with one character's lame leg, and another's frequent fainting spells, the general atmosphere at Merrimack was hale and hearty. This worked fine for the comedy, but left the poignance to be sketched in at particular moments by director Carl Forsman, when it should have suffused, and infused, everything. And speaking of infusion - I was rather surprised that the two actors from New York, Ron Holgate - who's won a Tony - and Jonathan Hogan, felt no further "inside" their characters than newcomer Kenneth Tigar. Holgate and Hogan were working more subtly than Tigar, it's true, but all were operating technically - and Hogan was unable to suggest the growing severity of Phillipe's attacks, or his deepening mania. Holgate offers probably the most satisfying performance - but even here, the edge of Gustave's inner terror was somehow missing.

Yet if this is not quite an ideal production of Heroes, it's nevertheless often an effective one - to which the Merrimack audience responded warmly. Sibleyras hasn't penned a masterpiece (for one thing it wraps far too abruptly), but he has a genuine voice - Stoppard hasn't rendered him as "Stoppard" - as well as the kind of light, yet serious touch that's becoming rare in the theatre these days. And if the Merrimack Heroes is a tad too broad, it's nevertheless affecting and sympathetic in a way it seems only the stage can be; I found its mood lingering in my mind for days after the performance. And a new play with that kind of effect is something to give thanks for.

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