Darin Anthony’s staging of Ann Noble’s drama The Boarding House (presented by the excellent Interact Theatre Company at the Write Act Repertory Theatre in Hollywood) has a radio on the set. The other port of entry for the world of 1945 beyond the Boston boarding house where the action unfolds is a newspaper, frequently snapped in frustration by one of the boarders, Mr. John. As played by Alan Brooks with striking dignity and seething restraint, he’s a meticulously groomed yet crusty World War I veteran who spends what appears to be his only enjoyable time giving French lessons to young Sylvia (Amanda Troop). In an absorbing performance rife with subtext, Troop is a striking, doe-eyed brunette, and his infatuation with her is understandable; meanwhile, she’s attracted to his intelligence and code of honor.
Their romance blossoms like a dandelion — low lying in a field of taller grasses, since Sylvia anxiously awaits the return of her husband from the war. He telegrammed her a couple of months ago to say when he was arriving, but he never showed up.
Enter young Paul (Matt Crabtree), a visitor who trips over the furniture with nicely executed pratfalls that occur too frequently. His good heart — which you can see on his sleeve when he’s not falling down — catches the eye of proprietress Imogen (a charismatic performance by Alyss Henderson). Unmarried and available, Imogen used to run the joint with her brother, Sylvia’s missing husband. She is now doing just fine on her own.
As Mr. John is about to embark on his first kiss with Sylvia, her husband — here named The Man (Kelly Van Kirk) — staggers onto the stage. Oh, dear. The Man is not some romanticized phantom, but a burly dockworker type with a foul mouth, a crude arrogance and post-traumatic stress disorder. Furthermore, Paul provides evidence that The Man had a dalliance soon upon arriving stateside. The returning hero is actually a morally compromised burden. This single idea could easily have addressed America’s place in a new world, but Noble chooses instead to home in on women’s place in a new world — on Imogen, as happily trapped caretaker; on Sylvia, who must choose between her young, difficult husband and her older, more genteel, suitor. There’s also a femme fatal (Rebecca Tilney) who chases an offstage married man, somewhat pathetically, for comic relief.
Noble’s domestic focus and soap-opera style is disappointing, given how well she’s set up the opportunity to dramatize larger issues of American identity. Both William Inge and Tennessee Williams wrote about brutal marriages and the lack of options for mid-20th-century women decades before this play was written and with considerably more potency. In Noble’s defense, her play was first produced in 1999, shortly before 9/11, when the core question of who we are as Americans (rather than as genders) exploded in our faces.
The horror of a woman’s place in the world as her brutish husband returns home from war also informs R.T. Robinson’s The Cover of Life, in a guest production at the NoHo Arts Center. The play, set in 1943 Louisiana, is presented through the eyes of a skeptical journalist for Life magazine named Kate, played with dimple-cheeked charm by Tara Lynn Orr.
Kate arrives reluctantly in the Deep South from New York to cover a trio of women (Megan S. Densmore, Billie Puyeaer and Kelli Tager) whose good ol’ boy husbands — all brothers — volunteered to fight the Good War. The women now all reside with their mother-in-law (Julie Sanford), and Kate’s boss figured this would be a great soft story for the cover. Kate would rather be working on news stories than fluff, but her initial haughtiness turns to compassion as she grows to understand how the trio of frequently squabbling women is trapped. Life uses its connections to get the “boys” home for a photo op, and though only one appears on the stage (Kyle Tyler Buckland), even their mother admits that they’re bullies and thugs — not exactly the picture that the magazine is after. I’m unsure whether Robinson’s critique of the brothers is a comment on men or just on men in Louisiana (where he was from). But his play, like Noble’s, aims to draw portraits of women in social cages — one of them shoots herself near play’s end.
Robinson died from AIDS shortly after his play was first produced in New York in 1991. Conjecture as to how The Cover of Life is Robinson's attempt to grapple with the themes of promiscuity and mortality may be more interesting than the play itself. Sara Botsford portrayed the journalist in that NYC production. Here she directs with such an overuse of background music, you’d think you were watching the Lifetime Channel.
Of the trio of war plays, writer-director Kerrie Keane’s new production, The Red and White Store (a guest production at Deaf West Theatre) is the only one that tries to wrestle with who we are as Americans, based on who we were. A dour Hungarian émigré, Benjamin Fodor (Vincent Mann) and his long-suffering Polish wife (Angelina Leaf) run a mercantile store in rural America, 1957. The returning soldier here is a good guy, Turner Martin (Steven Rifkin), back from Korea and, like The Man in The Boarding House, he’s also suffering from PTSD. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union has just launched Sputnik (the world's first artificial satellite, and start of the U.S.-Soviet space race). Though there’s no evidence of plans for any missile strike against the U.S., and though Joe McCarthy is dead and America’s communist witch hunts are over, the humorless Hungarian (a survivor of both the Nazis and the communists) fits the non-evidence to meet his paranoid agenda: He inspires his neighbors to help him build an underground shelter, which sets the soldier on edge. Furthermore, Ben’s wife catches him trying to exclude a teenage orphan wild child (Jessica Wright) from the shelter. She’s a barefoot, primal creature, annoying because she won’t shut up, but that really doesn’t warrant a death sentence. In other words, Ben embodies all the hatred and lethal culture of fear he has escaped.
This is good stuff: The way Ben seizes authority by scaring an entire community with a baseless threat from overseas. Ben chooses, or tries to choose, who shall live and who shall die. Ben becomes the self-appointed arbiter of human worth, like the Nazis he fled. Albeit from the vantage of the future, the playwright sows the origins of the kind of fear-mongering, punitive foreign policy we’ve been enduring for the past five years — a policy that finally appears to be unraveling. In Keane’s town too at least some of the neighbors come to their senses and refuse to consign themselves to a shelter and the lunatic authority of a paranoiac. Among those leading that charge is the returning soldier, Martin, who isn’t about to return to hiding in foxholes without a legitimate reason.
Not so good, however, are the plays mini-lectures trying to pass as dialogue, and the cloying theatrical treatment of the wild child. I could go on, but I won’t. I admire the intent too much. There are some tender performances by Mann, Leaf, Krista Lewis as a local schoolteacher with torn loyalties, and Danny Junod as a sweet neighbor who’s a surrogate uncle to the wild child.
As in The Cover of Life, not only does a character here shoot herself near play’s end, there’s also a spirited journalist from New York (Lisa Harman) — in this case from The Village Voice. Ostensibly there to check up on her missing soldier husband, she’s really there to introduce Ginsberg and the Beat Generation to the heartland.
The return of the soldier from battle is an epic moment, when a war’s horrors crash into domestic unions and reunions. It’s a moment when families, and families of nations, grapple with who they were, what they’ve done, and where they’re going. Agamemnon’s return from the Trojan War set off cycles of revenge within the House of Atreus, largely because of what he’d done on the battlefield. For completely different reasons, Othello returned from heroic military triumphs, only to strangle his wife in a blind and provoked fit of jealousy. Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is a drama about a soldier who didn’t come home, due to his own father’s wartime lust for profit while working for a military contractor. All of these are ultimately domestic tragedies that use the family drama of a soldier’s homecoming — or lack thereof — to speak about the state of the nation through the state of the family. That’s the implied scale of responsibility when a dramatist chooses to bring a soldier home.
Of the three plays reviewed here, only The Red and White Store appears cognizant of those stakes. There’s nothing trite about the blighted opportunities for women in 1945, but in The Boarding House and The Cover of Life, within their contexts of Johnny marching home, the plight of their women appears smaller than they deserve.
THE BOARDING HOUSE | By ANN NOBLE | Presented by INTERACT THEATRE COMPANY at WRITE ACT REPERTORY THEATRE, 6128 Yucca Ave., Hlywd. | Through June 2 | (818) 765-8732
THE COVER OF LIFE | By R.T. ROBINSON | Presented by OPEN AT THE TOP PRODUCTIONS at the NOHO ARTS CENTER, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd. | Through May 13 | (818) 508-7101
THE RED AND WHITE STORE | Written and directed by KERRIE KEANE | Presented by WHITE BUFFALO at DEAF WEST THEATRE, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd. | Through May 19 | (818) 377-3227