The year is 1970. From the kitchen, Jane (Monica Wyche) watches her three sons — House 24, and twins DB and Spencer 22 — sitting on the old swing set in the back yard. She comments to her husband (Jed Dickson) about how cruel their boys can be and how challenging it is for her to be surrounded, as she puts it, by “four full grown penises.”
Dad dismisses it as “boy energy” and, embarrassed, quickly changes the subject. But Jane’s struggle to understand her sons and her husband becomes a recurrent theme. She is naturally outgoing and forthcoming about her feelings, while they all seem so secretive to her.
In a way, Mr. Cissel puts the audience in a similar situation. The play reveals just so much about the characters and then pulls back, so that Organic Shrapnel is an analytic and philosophic undertaking as much as it is a theatrical one. It is up to us to peel back the layers.
We learn that Spencer Sr. is a World War II vet who has never shared his experiences with Jane, though we can tell he is living with some strong memories. The younger Spencer (Zach Wegner) is full of unexplained anger, like James Dean’s “rebel without a cause.” Big brother House (John Calvin Kelly), who sees himself as the responsible one, holds his feelings inside so tightly that he suffers from stomach problems. And DB (Alec Shaw), who hides beneath his hoodie, is a lost soul, seeking answers to questions he cannot fully articulate.
“Boy energy,” indeed!
Whether we ought to view the playwright’s resistance to providing fuller explanations about what drives the characters as a weakness or a strength is something to ponder as we watch Spencer Jr. self-destruct, House trying always to do the right thing, and DB struggling to figure out his place in life. Do we really ever understand one another, or ourselves for that matter?
The boys’ world is not solely their own. They are joined by CC (Mollie Downes), Spencer’s girlfriend, who shares Jane’s uncertainty about where she stands in this male-dominated environment. One thing she does know, however, is that both DB and House are attracted to her, a piece of information that, in the hands of another playwright (Sam Shepard or Harold Pinter, perhaps) could ignite a load of TNT. But Cissel is more concerned with the smolder than with the flames, and the explosive moments that do take place happen off-stage; we only see their effects.
As the play unfolds, the focus turns to DB. When his twin is lost to him in one of these off-stage explosive events, he still continues to hear Spencer’s voice in his ear giving him advice. And the one thing he has garnered from his father’s military experience is that going to war helped him to be “organized.”
This being 1970, DB finds his war in Vietnam, where he suffers the wounds suggested by the title, the results of being too close to a suicide bomber. The “organic shrapnel” — literally tiny pieces of the terrorist’s remains — becomes both a physical and a metaphysical source of agony for DB as he is sent home. His future rests on the extent to which he is willing to open up, and on the ability of his family and CC to accept him in all of his pain without turning away.
Because Organic Shrapnel is a play more of ideas than of actions, director Robin A. Paterson and the cast work diligently to strike a balance between fleshing out the characters and using them as representative types. Significantly, we actually get to see DB’s wounds (for which commendations go to the make up design by Erin Kennedy Lunsford), and — whether we are talking reality or metaphor — the mind-boggling implications of this in-your-face image give the audience much to think about.